FYI: The AIP Bulletin of Science Policy News

Orbach Appears Before Senate Appropriators

Richard M. Jones
Number 44 - April 9, 2008  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

Adjust text size enlarge text shrink text    |    Print this pagePrint this page    |     Bookmark and Share     |    rss feed for FYI

It is difficult to draw definite conclusions from Energy Under Secretary for Science Ray Orbach's appearance before the Senate Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee last week. While support was expressed for the Office of Science, concerns - similar to those raised by House appropriators - were expressed about proposed cuts to other DOE programs.

The clearest indication of Subcommittee Chairman Byron Dorgan's (D-ND) thoughts on the FY 2009 Department of Energy request was found in his opening statement. After discussing the importance of research in energy and energy technologies, Dorgan said:

"Without the scientific and technical breakthroughs in these programs, the United States cannot expect to achieve the lofty goals that we have set for ourselves. Both the administration and the Congress have set very substantial goals in various energy initiatives and in recently enacted energy laws.

"In 2009 in the recommended budget for this department, I think there are some concerns. I will express them during the questions. Science, of course . . . is the beneficiary in the budget request. The $749 million increase is the largest in the department's budget. Energy efficiency is evidently the donor. The $467 million reduction is also the largest reduction in the budget.

"It seems to me that if we are serious about balancing our energy issues, greater independence, for example from foreign oil and all the other related matters, we've got to be serious about a wide range of things. That does include science. It also includes energy efficiency. It includes renewable energy."

Few of Chairman Dorgan's comments during this one hour, forty minute hearing concerned the basic research programs supported by the Office of Science. Orbach shared the witness table with Alexander Karsner, Assistant Secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, and David Frantz, Director of Office of Loan Guarantee. After the three witnesses gave their opening statements, Dorgan turned to the request for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. "To me that's not justifiable," he said of the requested cut of $0.5 billion in the FY 2009 budget. Dorgan took issue with the proposed budget reductions in hydrogen technology research, solar energy, and weatherization assistance for low-income households. At the conclusion of his first round of questions, Dorgan told Orbach, "I appreciate the work that goes on at our laboratories. Our laboratories are very important institutions for investment in the future of this country, science, and so on."

Midway through the hearing during a subsequent round of questions, Dorgan asked Orbach, "how close are we to some unbelievably exciting breakthroughs" in the fusion energy sciences program. Orbach replied, "I hope we're very close," and described how computational facilities show "there's a good chance that we can keep that plasma contained and operating for significant periods of time." Orbach spoke of a fusion demonstration plant being built within 20 to 30 years. Dorgan cited the $493 million fusion energy sciences request for FY 2009, and asked "what kids of contributions exist from other countries?" Orbach replied that the U.S. had fallen behind, and briefly described the level of funding in Europe, Japan, China and India. Dorgan offered no further comment.

There were a variety of questions from the other senators. Ranking Member Pete Domenici (R-NM) admitted that this "was a difficult year for science funding," and expressed support for the FY 2009 request. He said he was "deeply concerned about the lack of investment in upgrading the science facilities" at the laboratories operated by the National Nuclear Security Administration. Domenici was also interested in the proposed Energy Frontier Research Centers, the extent to which the FY 2009 request for the Office of Science corresponded to the funding levels in the America COMPETES Act, climate modeling funding, and whether the $20 million request for nanotechnology research was sufficient. Senator Larry Craig (R-ID) told Orbach he was "generally pleased with your office overall," although disappointed with the request for the Idaho National Laboratory. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) asked about funding for a new building at the Hanford Site, and indicated her support of the request for PNNL's Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory. In responding to these points, Orbach described coordinated efforts between DOE's basic and applied research programs.

Dorgan concluded the hearing by saying that the subcommittee would attempt to increase funding "a little bit" for hydrogen, solar and similar research, saying "I think we really need to put our shoulder to the wheel and fund these projects." He continued, "We understand that there has to be some belt tightening. But it's also important [to] . . . really invest in this country's future, really invest in a big way and pay dividends such as trying to fix this energy situation." Dorgan then added, "So I understand the challenge. We've got to find a way to deal with all of this. My hope remains, however, that the [FY 2009 funding] allocation this subcommittee gets is an allocation that understands the difference between spending and investing. And there is a very big difference. Investments bring dividends, dividends that will accomplish a better future for this country. And I think if we understand that as we allocate funding in the appropriations process, the investments in energy, the investments in basic science, investments in clean energy facilities for the future, this country will be well-served by those investments."

A reminder from FYI #43:

Information on the grass roots call-in campaign for today and tomorrow (April 10) on behalf of additional current year funding for the DOE Office of Science, National Science Foundation, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology can be viewed at http://www.cnsfweb.org/GRCampaign.FY08Budget.pdf

Richard M. Jones
Media and Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics
rjones@aip.org
301-209-3095