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FYI Number 40: April 5, 2002

A Conversation with Ray Orbach

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.

Richard M. Jones
Media and Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics
(301) 209-3095

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