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DOE User Facilities Praised at House Science Committee Hearing

Richard M. Jones
Number 98 - July 12, 2012  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

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A June 21 hearing of the House Science, Space, and Technology’s Subcommittee on Energy and Environment demonstrated strong support for the Department of Energy’s user facilities on both sides of the witness table and both ends of the dais.  Republicans and Democrats were alike in their praise for the facilities, with the clearest policy differences between them centering on the federal government’s role in supporting applied research.

The subcommittee met for about ninety minutes, hearing from three senior user facility officials and two top officials from corporations.  Similar to the day-to-day cooperative arrangements that the witnesses described at these facilities, there was little or no dissention among the witnesses, a somewhat uncommon occurrence.

A subcommittee briefing document explained that the DOE Office of Science requested $4.9 billion for FY 2013.  Of that, 47 percent was for the “selection and management of research,” 38 percent for “operation of world-class, state-of-the-art scientific facilities,” and 14 percent for new facilities’ construction.  The Office’s six programs support 31 user facilities, and it is estimated that 26,500 academic, national laboratory, industrial, and international researchers will use these facilities in FY 2013.

Of note at a time when federal agencies are often criticized about construction management, the subcommittee briefing document prepared by the majority staff stated:

“The Office of Science is generally well regarded for its effectiveness in planning, developing, and constructing user facilities on time and on budget. This record is considered successful in part due to a rigorous planning and budget control process known as the Critical Decision, or CD, process. The CD process . . . requires a series of high level reviews and decision-making as a facility project advances.”

Also important was the inclusion of a finding from an Office of Science advisory committee in the briefing document:

“A 2010 report by DOE’s Basic Energy Sciences Advisory Committee (BESAC), ‘Science for Energy Technology: Strengthening the Link Between Basic Research and Industry,’ examined challenges and opportunities associated with realizing the technological and economic potential of scientific user facilities. The report noted that these user facilities allow researchers to ‘peer deep inside objects and probe surfaces in ever increasing detail, enabling an understanding of complex materials and chemistry with resolution and sensitivity that is not achievable by any other means. Facilities of this type are well beyond the resources of individual research institutions or companies.’”

Statements from the subcommittee’s top Republican and Democratic Members stressed the importance of the user facilities.  Subcommittee Chairman Andy Harris (R-MD) said the science at these facilities has a:

“direct and significant impact on innovation, driving discoveries with potential to advance and transform applications from medicine to materials to computing to semiconductors.”

His counterpart, Ranking Member Brad Miller (D-NC) was effusive in his praise when speaking of the user facilities, stating:

“We get scientific capabilities that do not exist anywhere else in the private sector or academia. Academic and industry researchers are able to break new scientific ground, as well as accelerate the process for translating scientific discovery into marketable products.  At user facilities federal funds support more efficient cars and trucks; more effective drugs; lighter and stronger metals; cheaper and more durable batteries; cleaner power plants; reduced reliance on foreign energy; a clearer picture of our changing climate; and even a better understanding of the origins of the universe and the nature of space and time.  Perhaps most important, we get the talent and technologies that provide for stronger and more competitive high-tech and manufacturing sectors in the U.S.  We get jobs.”

The importance of DOE’s user facilities was a common theme running through this hearing, with witnesses from Ely Lilly and Company, and GE Global Research, outlining the ways in which Argonne National Laboratory’s Advanced Photon Source and Brookhaven National Laboratory’s National Synchrotron Light Source have been instrumental in product development.  As examples, they described ten experimental pharmaceutical compounds in clinical trials, and a sodium battery that will be produced at a new $100 million plant that will eventually create 350 manufacturing jobs.

Witnesses from the National User Facility Organization, SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory described the transformational research being performed at these facilities, with one telling the subcommittee “the biggest scientific surprises are yet to come.”  They stressed, as did the corporate officials, that these user facilities are too expensive for any single company or university to build and operate.  While there was discussion about upgrading aging equipment, adequate funding, cost reimbursement, peer review to select users, and the advantages of making the facilities accessible to international researchers, there was little or no criticism of how the facilities are managed.  This hearing was a good news story for DOE’s Office of Science and its facilities.

The only real controversy was about the role of the federal government in supporting basic and applied research.  Most Republicans want taxpayer dollars to target basic research, while Democrats take a broader view.  In commenting on these two categories, the witness from GE Global Research said “in my world, that is not a distinction we use very much.”

A release from Chairman Harris’s subcommittee describing this hearing notably ended with a quotation from the Eli Lilly representative, which aptly summarizes the testimony and the positions of the subcommittee members:  “In creating the user facilities the government has provided a great service to the nation.”

Richard M. Jones
Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics