Earlier this week, Ray Orbach, the new director of the
Department of Energy Office of Science, spent an hour
outlining an optimistic future for the programs that he now
oversees. This on-the-record discussion with a small group
came a little more than two and one-half weeks after Orbach
was sworn into office. Orbach is a theoretical physicist, and
was chancellor of the University of California, Riverside, for
ten years. He now oversees an annual budget of $3.3 billion.
"Science in the Office of Science is beautiful," it is a
"magnificent enterprise," Orbach declared. His overall
mission will be to work with Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham
to secure additional funding and support for the Office of
Science. Orbach conceded that the office's flat budget for
the last decade had made it "very difficult" for university
researchers. "It has become very tough," he said.
Orbach described himself as an advocate for a diverse S&T
funding base since it helps to avoid the possibility of fads
in funding. A multiplicity of funding sources does require
effort to avoid overlap and duplication. He cited DOE's
special role of providing large facilities to the user
community that no university could afford to build on its own.
These facilities are used by a diverse range of scientists,
Orbach said, explaining that the Spallation Neutron Source
will benefit biologists and chemists as well as condensed
matter physicists. He also described the great interest
surrounding the department's proposed five nanoscience
centers. Funding for the first at Oak Ridge has been
requested for FY 2003, with planning now underway for centers
at Lawrence Berkeley and Sandia/ Los Alamos national labs.
Also mentioned were centers at Argonne and Brookhaven labs.
The discussion turned to federal funding for physical
sciences. Orbach said that he has had considerable discussion
with OSTP Director John Marburger about this matter, and
reported that Marburger "feels very strongly" that funding
should be appropriately distributed across disciplines.
Orbach went on to say that Marburger recognizes the integral
relationship between disciplines, such as that between the
biological and physical sciences. "Enthusiasm for physical
sciences is very, very strong" on both ends of Pennsylvania
Avenue, Orbach stated. He predicted that this support would
manifest itself as higher appropriations before this budget
cycle is completed.
"People have to understand" the importance of the research
that the Office of Science supports, Orbach declared. This
applies not only to Members of Congress and their staffs, but
also to the constituents which they represent. He described
the wide range of work the office supports in fields such as
climate change, energy, physics, genomics, and materials.
Secretary Abraham also wants the department to reinvigorate
its support of science education, Orbach noting the special
role that DOE played in this area in the mid-1990s.
Regarding the use of measurement criteria, Orbach declared
that there is "nothing wrong with asking for performance
measurements for basic research." He is "quite comfortable"
with such measurements, explaining that they had been used by
scientists for more than forty years. The Office of Science
is developing appropriate metrics, and Orbach stated that one
of the most difficult parts of the process will be in making
the measurements comprehensible and useful to non scientists.
He added that the Office of Management and Budget realizes
that performers of basic research cannot commit to a schedule
for making discoveries.
Orbach expressed enthusiasm for the progress that has been
made in fusion research, and hopes additional funding will be
forthcoming. He said "our investment has really begun to pay
off," and said that a decision would be made by Secretary
Abraham within the next few months about whether the United
States should rejoin the ITER project. "I personally would be
very much in favor of" such participation, Orbach said,
quickly adding that the decision would be made by Abraham and
ultimately President Bush. Orbach envisions the U.S. as a
junior partner in ITER, pointing to our position in the Large
Hadron Collider, with a capped U.S. contribution, as a model.
Toward the end of the conversation, Orbach noted that the
Office of Science is now engaged in a strategic review of its
programs, looking ahead to its future activities. When asked
how much he would like to see the appropriations grow for his
office in the next five years, Orbach replied that 30-40%
would be appropriate.