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FYI Number 107: August 20, 2001

Testimony on Higher Profile for DOE's Office of Science

"[T]he Director of the DOE Office of Science has responsibilities comparable to those of the director of the NSF and not very different from those of the directors of NIH and NASA but does not have comparable authority or visibility." - Robert Richardson, Cornell University

There are concerns throughout the physics community that, although DOE's Office of Science is the primary federal supporter of the physical sciences, the science function within DOE does not have the status nor visibility appropriate to this role. In a discussion paper published in December (see FYI #5), eleven prominent physicists suggested that a possible remedy for this situation would be to elevate the Director of the Office of Science to Under Secretary for Science and Energy, also serving as Science Advisor to the Secretary.

As his committee formulates its version of an energy bill, Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D- NM) plans to consider options for raising the profile of science within the Department of Energy. At a July 18 hearing, he received testimony from one of the authors of the discussion paper, Robert Richardson of Cornell University. Richardson is a member of the National Science Board and Chair of the American Physical Society's Physics Policy Committee. Richardson's written statement follows:

"My testimony principally concerns the administrative structure of the Department and the effect that the structure has had on the performance of the Office of Science and the Energy Research Programs. But first, I would like to comment briefly on the DOE's research budgets for FY 2002, particularly in the context of the public's renewed awareness about energy issues.

"The Vice President's Energy Task Force Report highlights the important role that research must play in securing our energy future: by creating and bringing to market new energy technologies, enhancing efficiency of energy production and use, and mitigating environmental impact of existing technologies. A sustained commitment must be made to invest in both fundamental science and applied energy research.

"Even if energy were not on the policy front burner, the President's budget request would shortchange the DOE's civilian research programs.... DOE, the lead agency for the physical sciences, has seen its research budget decline steadily during the 1990s. Last year, recognizing that technology drives the economy and that today's science becomes tomorrow's high-tech product, the Republican Congress and the Democratic White House reversed this trend with major increases in many of the DOE's research programs. The budget request submitted by the Bush Administration turns the clock back.

"With energy on everyone's mind, that request is not only bad policy, it is bad politics. Admittedly, the Administration submitted its request before the Vice President's Energy Task Force had released its report, and in its amended budget the Administration has sought to remedy some of the deficiencies. But I believe that it has not gone nearly far enough. Nor have the House and Senate appropriations bills.

"I hope that this committee sends a clear signal through its authorization bill that the budgetary momentum established last year for DOE's research programs must be sustained for FY 2002. Our economic future requires it, our energy future depends on it, and the technological workforce of the future will vanish without it.

"There are many reasons why DOE's research programs have fared poorly in the budgetary process for some time. The end of the Cold War reduced defense exigencies, cheap fuel prices created a feeling of energy security, and hazardous waste and lax security at some national laboratories gave the Department a bad rap.

"But the administrative structure within the Department has exacerbated matters. The highest level administrator with sole authority for science is the Director of the Office of Science, who sits three levels below the Secretary. Today, one Under Secretary oversees the National Nuclear Security Agency, and one oversees all other activities. Only rarely has an Under Secretary had a science background. With DOE's Weapons Programs and Environmental Management activities absorbing major attention, policy makers in the Executive Branch and in Congress have often ignored the Department's research programs.

"I am here today, speaking as a representative of a panel of ten other scientists who have had extensive administrative and policy experience with DOE's scientific programs. The report from which the balance of my testimony is drawn, DOE Science for the Future, was stimulated by discussions that took place at meetings of the American Physical Society's Physics Policy Committee last year. With the Chairman's permission, I would like to have it included in the record.

"The report makes several observations specifically regarding the Office of Science:

"First, the Office oversees outstanding national laboratories whose capabilities for solving complex interdisciplinary problems are not easily matched elsewhere. It builds and operates large-scale user facilities of importance to all areas of science and, in large part, has been enormously successful. And it supports a large array of university research programs that are responsible for educating and training the next generation of scientists.

"Second, as I noted earlier, for about a decade, DOE Science budgets have been declining and have fared very badly compared to those of other agencies. These difficulties have been exacerbated by perceptions of mismanagement and security problems throughout the Department. In many areas, the budget situation has reached crisis proportions, jeopardizing future U.S. leadership in many essential areas of science.

"Last, the Director of the DOE Office of Science has responsibilities comparable to those of the director of the NSF and not very different from those of the directors of NIH and NASA but does not have comparable authority or visibility.

"Mr. Chairman, our report proposed two alternative recommendations, one of which comes under the purview of this Committee. It is also one that appears in Division E, Title XV, Sec. 1503 in S. 597 [energy legislation proposed by Bingaman earlier this year, which he may use to guide the committee's current efforts]. That recommendation is to establish the position of Under Secretary for Science and Technology. I urge the Committee to adopt it in its final markup.

"Our report also recommended that the Under Secretary serve as the Science Advisor to the Secretary, as called for in S. 597's Subsection (b)(3). Although our report did not set out additional details for the Under Secretary, I think the panel would feel comfortable endorsing the remaining duties described in Subsection (b). Additionally, as the Department moves toward stricter accountability for research performance, the Under Secretary will have an important role in ensuring that the DOE strives for quality science, as well as efficient program administration.

"Our report expressed hope that a qualified Under Secretary would be an influential scientist who could be an effective leader and spokesperson for DOE science and energy with comparable visibility and authority to the Directors of NSF, NASA and NIH."

Audrey T. Leath Media and Government Relations Division American Institute of Physics fyi@aip.org (301) 209-3094

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