On May 17, Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD), chairman of the House Science Subcommittee
on Energy and a PhD scientist, led a far-ranging, comprehensive and
supportive hearing exploring the contributions of DOE's civilian Office
of Science to the federal research enterprise. In addition to hearing
from advisory committee chairs about the six main Office of Science
programs, Bartlett led the discussion into issues of the balance of
support between physical and biomedical research, the role the physical
sciences play in underpinning the health and energy fields, the opportunities
missed and facilities underutilized in many areas due to lack of funding,
and the difficulties in articulating the value of basic research and
maintaining public and congressional support for long-term research.
Bartlett spoke fervently about how basic research was underappreciated
in this country, and, pointing to the many empty committee seats, remarked
on "the problem we face in attracting attention" to the accomplishments
of the Office of Science.
Worries about adequate funding to pursue promising areas of research,
and to repair and fully utilize DOE facilities, were related by the
chairs of all six Office of Science independent advisory committees.
Geraldine Richmond, chair of the Basic Energy Sciences Advisory Committee
(BESAC), spoke about the possibilities to improve energy technologies
and efficiency. The most difficult part of being BESAC chair, she said,
was "seeing many phenomenal new ideas shelved or stalled because
of lack of funding." The chairs of the Nuclear Science (NSAC) and
Fusion Energy Sciences (FESAC) Advisory Committees testified that facilities
in their fields were being underutilized - in many cases, run at less
than half capacity. "Increased funding is essential" to capitalize
on investments already made, said NSAC chair James Symons. FESAC chair
Richard Hazeltine reported " serious concerns about whether the [fusion
energy sciences] enterprise can be sustained" at current funding
levels. Keith Hodgson, who chaired the Biological and Environmental
Research Advisory Committee, stressed the importance of support for
the physical sciences to advances in biological and biomedical sciences.
A second panel of witnesses addressed management of DOE's Office of
Science. Nobel laureate Robert Richardson, chairman of the American
Physical Society's Physics Policy Committee, testified that the Office
of Science does an enormously successful job of building and operating
large user facilities " of importance to all areas of science,"
and oversees a system of national labs with capabilities " not easily
matched elsewhere." However, he said, a decade of declines in spending
power, and perceptions of security and management problems throughout
DOE, have led to a situation that has " reached crisis proportions."
Citing the recommendations of a report released in December by a blue-ribbon
panel of experts (see
FYI #5), he urged that the achievements of the Office of Science
be given greater visibility and recognition, either by elevating the
office's Director to the position of Under Secretary of Science and
Energy within the department, or by incorporating the activities of
the Office of Science with NIST, NOAA, and possibly USGS into a "National
Institutes of Science and Advanced Technology" within the Commerce Department.
The Office of Science is " bursting" with research opportunities
and cutting edge science, added Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
Director Charles Shank, but the aging of DOE's research facilities "
is a cloud on the future of world class science at these facilities."
This, he said, will " compel us to address the imbalance of support"
for the physical sciences. Bartlett agreed that if DOE's physical sciences
are not adequately supported, " we're going to be limited in what
we can do in biomedical research in the future, because that all begins
where you leave off." " We're limited right now," Richardson
responded; " The name of the game in [genomics] is imaging,"
and progress will not be made without the support of physical scientists
and instrument designers. Bartlett also raised the role of the physical
sciences in advancing energy technologies. As an argument for greater
funding for fusion, he asked the witnesses for help in articulating
to the public and the Administration " the dimensions of the energy
problems we face as a nation."
James Matheson (D-UT) asked about past allegations of DOE management
problems in the construction of major facilities. While there have been
problems, they have been dealt with, Richardson indicated. He said DOE
had a " superb record" of management of major scientific facilities,
and " the biggest problem is the funding to keep them going."
Bartlett expressed his views that private industry should be funding
more R&D, but that the federal government has an essential role in supporting
long-term basic research. He was critical of the government for spending
a smaller percentage of its GDP on basic research than other competing
nations. Richardson pointed out that industry is not willing to support
research with a long time horizon and to nurture " off-the-wall ideas,"
and its intellectual property interests will not let it support open
research at universities as the government does. Bartlett noted that
Congress can often be " arbitrary and capricious" in the funding
of research. " Putting the sustainability of these [long-term basic
research] projects at the mercy of Congress puts them at enormous risk,"
he stated. By the end of the hearing he had left no doubt that he is
an advocate of greater funding for basic research in the physical sciences,
and a supporter of DOE's Office of Science.
Audrey T. Leath
Public Information Division
American Institute of Physics