DOE's Office of Basic Energy Sciences (BES) staff and members of the
Basic Energy Sciences Advisory Committee (BESAC) spent a day and a half
this month looking ahead at the future of BES facilities and fields.
They discussed how to ensure that new facilities get started off on
the right foot and that the office stays on top of trends, changes and
advances in science and in the conduct of research. At the August 5-6
meeting, BES Director Pat Dehmer called on the committee to take a broad
look at what grand challenges lie ahead for the energy sciences. She
described how the BES program earned a major role in supporting the
basic research to underpin President Bush's initiative for a hydrogen
economy, and she is now turning her attention to how it could play a
similar role in exploring the future of solar energy. She also reported
that several new BES facilities are underway; construction continues
on the Spallation Neutron Source and the Linac Coherent Light Source,
and most of the five planned Nanoscale Science Research Centers are
now also under construction. A number of speakers described the opportunities
posed by these centers, and how creating new models of operation for
them might have an impact on other scientific user facilities.
Dehmer began by discussing the role BESAC has played in helping guide
the past activities of the BES program. In particular, she cited the
impact of a 2002 BESAC report, "Basic Research Needs to Assure
a Secure Energy Future" (which can be found on the BES web site
) and follow-on workshops in ensuring that basic research played an
important role in Bush's hydrogen initiative. Dehmer said that even
though basic research was not originally envisioned as a significant
part of the initiative, BES and BESAC were able to "change minds."
She urged the committee to contribute suggestions for a workshop that
might address the prospects for solar energy, which she said has "huge
potential and huge basic research needs." Such workshops, she said,
"tend to have a lot of impact."
In addition to efforts on solar energy, Dehmer asked the committee
to consider "What's next?" for BES. She decried the perception,
from both within and outside the department, that while high energy
physics was "pushing the boundaries of our understanding,"
the chemical, biological and materials sciences were "looked upon
as making incremental improvements." She reminded the committee
that BESAC is "almost unique" in the federal advisory system
by having such a broad scientific purview. "What's happening in
our disciplines...is equally profound," she declared, and "could
have equal...impact on the way we think." In chemistry in particular,
she said, "we are no longer bounded by what nature has given us."
Dehmer also gave an overview of the FY 2005 appropriations process
for BES, noting that the House Energy and Water Development Appropriations
bill would provide $13 million over the President's request for BES,
but that the Senate has not yet acted. She is expecting a continuing
resolution that would last for some time after the start of the 2005
fiscal year, which she said would be "very hard on our construction
projects in particular; some could be very severely impacted."
Several speakers talked about how the nanoscience centers would require
new thinking, new definitions of the user community, new models for
coupling theory with experiment, and new mechanisms for cooperation
within and across facilities. J. Michael Rowe of NIST (retired) discussed
a "Committee of Visitors" (CoV) assessment of the new BES
Scientific User Facilities Division and the processes for monitoring,
reviewing and making decisions on facility operations, construction,
and upgrades. In general, he said, the CoV, while urging care in the
setting of metrics, found that the facility review process was "fair
and was seen to be so." It also found that the new division was
"well-launched" and "good for all involved." Rowe
pointed out that with more remote users, and researchers spending less
time at facilities, users' needs and even the definition of facility
users were changing, and the nanoscience centers would accelerate those
trends. "We have an opportunity to get a little ahead of the curve"
in considering how to set up the centers, he stated. The CoV recommended
that the centers involve users in the early stages of the planning process,
establish agreements with other laboratory activities and facilities,
carefully plan integration with BES science programs, and facilitate
coordination between centers to ensure they served as a national, rather
than just local, resource.
Bruce Harmon of Iowa State University also referred to the nanoscience
centers while addressing the issue of "connecting theory with experiment."
Noting that many BES facilities have "little or no associated theory
program," he asserted that more strongly coupling the new facilities
with theory programs would promote "asking the right questions"
and "understanding the answers," thus enhancing the scientific
productivity of the facilities. Bill McCurdy of Lawrence Berkeley National
Laboratory added that a BESAC subcommittee on theory and computation
was "struggling with" developing the right overall model for
the nanoscience centers, including how to strengthen the connection
between theory and experiment. "Everyone agrees that theory and
computation needs to be a part" of the facilities programs, Dehmer
said, but as they had not previously been coordinated within the BES
program, "no one knows how to do it" yet. Saying that she
expected this coupling to eventually "spill over" into all
other scientific user facilities, she asked for the subcommittee to
come up with "a range of models that might be appropriate."
An overview of the entire Office of Science (SC) was provided by James
Decker, SC's Principal Deputy Director. Referring to the FY 2005 budget,
he said, "I can't find anybody who knows" how this year's
appropriations process will turn out. He reported that SC Director Ray
Orbach had committed to producing, by this fall, a document highlighting
the department's view of the contributions and future directions of
its national laboratories. He said that producing a document that incorporated
budget projections would be a difficult task: because the labs would
be competing to host facilities proposed in the office's 20-year facilities
roadmap, there were "significant uncertainties" in the labs'
future budgets. Decker also commented that several different groups,
including SC and a panel of the Secretary of Energy's Advisory Board,
were looking at laboratory management, contracting, performance, and