Two of the most important congressional hearings for the Department
of Energy's Office of Science were held this week. On Wednesday,
Office of Science Director Ray Orbach appeared before the Senate
Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee. The next
day, Robert Card, who is the Under Secretary of Energy, Science and
Environment, testified before the counterpart House subcommittee.
Both hearings were rather short, and neither provided clear
indications about the outlook for FY 2004 Office of Science funding.
Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM) is the longtime chairman of the Senate
subcommittee, and a well-known supporter of the Department of Energy.
Domenici's low-key hearing lasted about one hour, with few senators
in attendance. Sharing the witness table with Orbach were two other
officials heading up major DOE program offices. Most of the hearing,
as was true of Thursday's House hearing, revolved around energy
issues outside of the Office of Science. Regarding the Science
request, Domenici said "It's only a little better than flat."
added that he "remained concerned about the tremendous imbalance"
federal research funding for the physical and life sciences.
Senator Larry Craig (R-ID) centered most of his comments and
questions on DOE's nuclear energy research program. Craig told
Orbach that the Office of Science was supporting very important work,
and the senator explained that he had introduced, with Senator Dianne
Feinstein (D-CA), an authorization bill for fusion research (S. 600).
Orbach's oral testimony ran about five minutes. He began saying
that he was starting his second year in office, and provided some
impressive statistics about the number of researchers and university
students that are supported by the Office of Science. Orbach touched
on a number of items: ITER (the U.S. is "pleased to take our place"),
DOE's approach on high performance computing, the Spallation Neutron
Source ("on track and on budget"), and the new nanotechnology
centers. Orbach also mentioned the genomics program and a new
teacher education initiative.
Chairman Domenici's initial questions to Orbach revolved around
ongoing research to improve the understanding of how low levels of
radiation affects human health. Orbach replied that 53 projects are
investigating this relationship. Domenici also wanted to know about
the status of the "very exciting nanoscience centers." Five
all being managed by the Basic Energy Sciences program, are in
various stages of development or construction.
Senator Byron Dorgan (D-ND) expressed concern about the distribution
of grants made by the Office of Science to various states. Orbach
agreed, saying "if we're not careful, we will leave states behind,"
explaining that the EPSCoR program and partnerships can help.
Domenici concluded the hearing by saying that he was very pleased
with the way in which DOE was growing, but added that he wants to see
more research on nuclear energy.
The House hearing the next day was about ninety minutes long, and had
quite a few members in attendance. The same DOE programs were
discussed, with many of the questions again on energy research. Rep.
David Hobson (R-O) is the new subcommittee chairman. He made several
comments regarding the Office of Science, touching on the "enormous
impact" that nanoscience could have, insufficient funding for
advanced computation, and fusion research. Hobson asked for a
description of how the Office of Science selects its different
funding priorities, and expressed concern about the long-term funding
implications of major projects. He was somewhat critical of the
predominant role that the national laboratories play in conducting
research, saying that he did not want them to become an "exclusive
playground." Research opportunities should be shared with
universities, he said.
In his opening remarks, Rep. Mike Simpson (R-ID) asked about the
Department of Energy's nuclear energy research laboratory in Idaho.
Rodney Frelinghuysen (D-NJ) asked Card about the importance of basic
research and how it relates to the development of alternative energy.
That gave Card, and Orbach, who was also at the witness table, an
opportunity to discuss ITER. Orbach described the FY 2004 fusion
request as very modest, explaining it by saying that the costs for
ITER in FY 2006 will increase significantly. Orbach also said that
it was important to provide strong support for the domestic fusion
program. Later in the hearing, Orbach told the committee that DOE
would play a very active and aggressive role in fusion research.
Rep. Chet Edwards (D-TX) asked about DOE's programs in hydrogen,
wind, and other alternative energy sources. John Doolittle (R-CA)
began by describing how the NIH budget has almost doubled, and
proposed that energy and its direct relationship to the state of the
nation's economy merited a similar percentage increase. Zach Wamp
(R-TN) asked about the budget for Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and
then said that "I was disappointed" in the DOE request for
computing. What will you do, he said to Orbach, to increase the
request in FY 2005? Orbach replied that the Office of Science was
looking at various ways to regain international leadership. Chairman
Hobson said that it was "outrageous" that the U.S. has lost
leadership, and signaling his intentions, said that "assistance"
coming. In a subsequent round of questions, Frelinghuysen also asked
about advanced computing.
Ranking Minority Member Peter Visclosky (D-IN) held his questions
until the end of the hearing. He began by complimenting Orbach on
how responsive the Office of Science had been to an earlier inquiry
made by Visclosky. Touching on a point Visclosky has made in
previous hearings, he said that he felt "very, very strongly"
increasing university competition for research funding. He had
similar questions about how the locations for the nanotechnology
centers were determined. Visclosky also told Orbach that he is
interested in utilizing DOE's facilities to their maximum, and asked
how much additional funding would be required. Orbach replied that
an additional $60 million would be required on top of the $1.25
billion request. While this amount was not very large, priority
decisions had to be made, Orbach said.
Hobson ended the hearing by asking about the status of the Spallation
Neutron Source, and was told that while it "will be tight,"
there should be no additional cost above that which is planned.
Chairman Hobson then concluded by challenging the DOE officials to
select one or two areas to target that would represent a "quantum
leap forward." Hobson said that he did not care where the resulting
research would be conducted, or even what it was, "if it is the
thing to do."