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GAO Assesses the Research Prioritization Process at the Department of Energy Office of Science

Aline D. McNaull
Number 47 - April 9, 2012  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

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Frank Rusco, Director of Natural Resources and Environment at the Government Accountability Office (GAO), recently drafted a report on the Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science’s (SC) use of a multilayered process for prioritizing research.  This February 2012 report, prepared for Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development of the Senate Appropriations Committee, reviewed SC’s research priorities, explained how those priorities were established, and offered a description of the coordination between SC and other federal agencies used to identify areas of potential duplication of research efforts.

The report concluded that while the federal budget process provides an annual opportunity for agencies to formalize priorities, SC “develops priorities on an ongoing basis through the continuous evaluation of evolving scientific knowledge and other contextual factors.”

This report provided a background summary of the four goals underpinning DOE’s mission and listed SC’s support of fundamental research through six core interdisciplinary research programs: Advanced Scientific Computing Research, Basic Energy Sciences, Biological and Environmental Research, Fusion Energy Sciences, High Energy Physics, and Nuclear Physics. 

“The office establishes priorities by having its associate directors and the Director of the Office make trade-off decisions during the annual budgeting process.  These trade-off decisions are informed through assessing areas of evolving scientific knowledge and other contextual factors,” the report explained. 

The report addressed how SC is managing budgeting issues in light of the current economic situation:

“The Deputy Director said that Science remains committed to all six of its research programs and that, in the case of stable or declining budgets, Science does not intend to limit funding reductions to certain programs.  Additionally, the Deputy Director noted that advancements in one research program enable research in other programs.”

Details of the budget formulation process were laid out in this report:

“The associate directors of the six research programs annually make proposals to the Science Director, Deputy Directors, and Science Budget Office about which research projects should receive increased, decreased, and maintained levels of funding.  An overall target budget allocation, determined by the Science Director and the DOE’s Chief Financial Advisor, constrains these program proposals.”

Regarding the role of the Science Budget Office and the associate directors, the report stated:

“The Science Budget Office, in alignment with OMB [the Office of Management and Budget] guidance and requirements, asks associate directors to submit a budget for a target scenario and may also request budgets for various other scenarios for specific levels of funding above or below the target.  These scenarios allow the Director, Deputy Directors, and Science Budget Director to see the potential effects of various budget decisions at the project level.  Additionally associate directors make lists of specific projects recommended for funding increases in case funding is available and decreases in case funding is short.  Associate directors are also required to submit narratives that describe the strategy behind any proposed increases or decreases in project funding.”

The SC director “reconciles priorities across programs annually by aggregating program proposals into a Science-wide budget request.  The Science-wide budget request is considered in the context of other DOE priorities and incorporated into the DOE budget request.”

Senior SC management gather information to determine priorities through a variety of means, including: recent guidance from federal advisory committees, current findings from the National Academy of Sciences, participation in interagency working groups and other partnerships, the current priorities of Congress and the administration, a consideration of the long time frames associated with basic research, the capabilities of facilities to meet research needs, as well as past and current project performance. 

While the report discussed SC’s coordination efforts with program officials, the scope of the request for the report “did not involve evaluating the extend to which Science’s tools for coordination are effective in identifying or mitigating duplication, overlap or fragmentation.”

In a response to the report, Deputy Director for Science Programs at the DOE’s Office of Science, Patricia Dehmer, indicated that the Office of Science had no additional recommended edits or comments. 

The full report can be read here.

Aline D. McNaull
Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics