DOE's Office of Science received a publicity boost on July 29. Calling
the office "arguably the brightest star in the Department of Energy,"
Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) chaired a hearing of the Senate Energy
and Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy that highlighted the past
achievements and future promise of research funded by the office, while
noting that it has been overlooked in congressional efforts to increase
the federal investment in science. As Alexander pointed out, the Office
of Science is the country's largest supporter of basic research in the
physical sciences, funding about 70 percent of physics basic research
and a significant portion of research in materials, mathematics and
computing. Yet the office has experienced essentially flat budgets for
the past decade. The FY 2004 budget request for the office is $3.3 billion.
Alexander praised the Senate version of the energy policy bill (S. 14),
saying it "corrects the recent trend towards flat-lining funding
for the basic sciences." The bill would authorize $3.79 billion
in FY 2004, as would the companion bill in the House. (Senate appropriators
have recommended $3.36 billion for FY 2004, while appropriators in the
House would provide $3.48 billion.)
Alexander and his first witness, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham,
framed the issue as one of jobs, economic prosperity, national security,
and quality of life. "I don't think there is full appreciation,"
Abraham said, for how achievements in public health, telecommunications,
supercomputing, and many other fields "are dependent upon progress
in the physical sciences." In particular, he cited the role of
DOE in advances such as artificial retinas, the map of the human genome,
microbes to absorb carbon dioxide and create hydrogen, and "virtually
every aspect" of energy resources, production, waste and storage.
He described how investments today in such fields as fusion, hydrogen,
supercomputers and nanomaterials might lead to benefits several decades
in the future.
The remaining witnesses added their voices to the concern over funding
trends for the Office of Science. "I'm most concerned... about
funding long-term, high-risk research - research that we can, on any
one day, postpone," said Argonne National Laboratory Director Hermann
Grunder. Commenting that "it's easy to spend money [but] harder
to spend it well," Burton Richter, former Director of the Stanford
Linear Accelerator Center, declared that Office of Science funds "are
being spent well." He cited "world-class facilities"
that are used by more than 18,000 researchers from universities, industry,
and the national labs, and the "prodigious" scientific output
that has led to numerous papers and Nobel prizes. He also pointed out
that, as the manufacture of current technologies moves offshore, U.S.
industry relies on federal R&D in order to develop the next generation
of cutting edge technologies.
Several witnesses said that Members of Congress may think they are
"taking care of the physical sciences" by increasing the NSF
budget, but as Richter noted, "they are not." Grunder stated
that the adequacy of support can be assessed by whether "the best
and brightest young people are choosing careers" in the physical
sciences. Georgia Institute of Technology President G. Wayne Clough,
who chaired a PCAST panel that called for increasing federal funding
for the physical sciences, reported that the panel had found "too
few U.S. students going into those fields" and "declining
interest" among foreign students. Richter added that DOE can only
fund about 10 percent of the grant proposals it receives from university
researchers, while NIH and NSF are able to fund about 30 percent.
The witnesses' testimony, Alexander said, would help the committee
in "trying to correct the imbalance we have in funding" for
the physical sciences. "Perhaps the most important thing we can
do," he added, is to "present a compelling vision of where
we hope to be" in the future, and "help the taxpayers and...Members
of Congress understand" how advances in many fields are dependent
upon the physical sciences. "Over the last 10 or 12 years,"
he said, "we've lost sight of that fact."