Last Wednesday was both a busy and important day on Capitol Hill for
Ray Orbach, Director of the Department of Energy's Office of Science.
At 10:00 a.m., Orbach testified at a hearing of the House Appropriations
Subcommittee on Energy and Water. Later that day he appeared on the
other side of Capitol Hill at the Senate's counterpart subcommittee.
Orbach was joined at these hearings by David Garman, Assistant Secretary
for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy and William Magwood, Director
of Nuclear Energy, Science and Technology. The House hearing was attended
by most of the subcommittee's members and dealt quite extensively with
science policy issues while the afternoon hearing had, because of scheduling
conflicts, only a few senators in attendance.
House subcommittee chairman David Hobson (R-OH) opened the hearing
by declaring that the $23.4 billion request for the entire Department
of Energy was "pretty healthy" and should be sufficient, but
then added that "the 3.8% [proposed] reduction for the Office of
Science is most troubling for me." It appeared, he said, that short-term
tradeoffs for other programs were being made at the expense of the Office
of Science. "The committee has yet to decide if it agrees"
with this funding reduction, Hobson declared.
One of the first paragraphs in Orbach's written testimony summarizes
well how the Office of Science's budget was prepared: "The Office
of Science, within a period of budget stringency, has chosen its priorities
so that the U.S. will continue its world primacy in science. We have
made the hard decisions that will enable our scientists to work on the
finest machines whose scale and magnitude will give them opportunities
not found elsewhere. As a consequence, we have made difficult choices.
But these have been taken with one end in mind: the Office of Science
will support a world-class program in science and energy security research
with this budget." This need for priority-setting was mentioned
several times during the hearings.
Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ) was the first member to pose questions
to Orbach, and his questions centered on the budget for fusion energy
sciences. Frelinghuysen called the overall budget "pretty healthy,"
characterized himself a supporter of ITER, but then raised a series
of questions about proposed cuts in domestic facilities' operating times.
How can such cuts be justified, he asked, when no site had even been
selected for ITER? Orbach responded that "we are committed to maintaining
domestic strength" in fusion energy sciences, but the budget reallocation
was an example of making necessary tradeoffs and priority-setting in
crafting the FY 2006 request. While Frelinghuysen acknowledged that
need, he responded "I get the feeling everyone is bowing to ITER.
It doesn't make me happy." Frelinghuysen agreed with a remark Hobson
quietly made about when ITER will be operational, with Frelinghuysen
saying "I don't want to hold my breath." While again expressing
his support for ITER, Frelinghuysen repeated his concern about maintaining
a strong domestic fusion energy sciences program, and said that the
fusion budget would be one of the questions the committee would be "wrestling
Rep. Zach Wamp's questions to Orbach were about U.S. leadership-class
computing. Saying that appropriators had increased funding for this
program in recent years, he complained that the Administration's request
for FY 2006 "falls back below where we need to be." Wamp described
the contribution of computing power to research in materials, fusion,
computational biology, and climate, and said DOE's FY 2006 program would
fall short. Orbach explained the rationale behind the request, but Wamp
seemed less than completely convinced, saying "I'll just assume
you want to put more money in the budget and just can't say so."
Concerns about U.S. scientific leadership in areas such as computing
were the focus of the questions by Rep. Dennis Rehberg (R-MT). Saying
that the United States became great because of its investment in education
and research, he said that many programs are being underfunded. Orbach
replied that "our science and technology is still the world's leader,"
but cautioned that European and Asian nations are making strong investments
in S&T (see http://www.aip.org/fyi/2005/032.html
for further information on this topic.)
Ranking Member Peter Visclosky (D-IN) asked Orbach a series of questions
about the impact of the proposed $100 million cut in grant money for
universities and DOE lab research, especially on students. "We
had to make tradeoffs in this budget climate" between core research
and opening and operating facilities such as the Spallation Neutron
Source and nanoscience centers, Orbach responded.
There were far fewer questions asked about Office of Science programs
at the afternoon Senate hearing. Chairman Pete Domenici (R-NM) opened
the hearing by remarking that deficit reduction is a major priority
of the Bush Administration, and "things are very tight," mentioning
the proposed reduction in the Office of Science budget. Domenici praised
Orbach for keeping the Spallation Neutron Source and the nanoscience
centers on track. Like Frelinghuysen, Domenici said that the fusion
budget "comes up short," and questioned moving money from
the domestic program to ITER. The proposed funding increase for hydrogen
energy research was "a big winner . . . a bright spot," Domenici
commented. Later in the hearing Senator Byron Dorgan (D-ND) also expressed
support for the hydrogen program. Domenici's questions to Orbach focused
on the status of an ongoing low-dose radiology study.
These two hearings conclude the public phase of the appropriations
process for the Office of Science, although other authorizations hearings
can be anticipated. The work the appropriators now face is similar to
that confronting the Administration earlier this year: making tradeoffs
and setting priorities in a very constrained fiscal environment.