Good Hearing for DOE Secretary Moniz Before House Science Committee

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Publication date: 
5 May 2014
Number: 
81

Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz testified before the House Science, Space and Technology Committee about the Administration’s FY 2015 request for his department.  While there are differences in approaches and priorities between committee members and the Obama Administration the hearing went surprisingly well given the diversity of DOE’s portfolio.  Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) concluded the hearing by expressing appreciation for the forthright answers Moniz give to the members’ questions and an approach, Smith said, to decision-making that appeared to rely more on data than on the influence of politics.

The Administration’s request for DOE’s science programs received attention at this hearing and is the focus of this FYI.  In Smith’s opening remarks at the April 10 hearing he stated “Scientists at the Department of Energy and in the private-sector have consistently collaborated to create the most reliable, affordable and secure domestic energy portfolio in the world.”  He later added, “At a time of tightened budgets, we have to set priorities.  Our first focus should be basic energy research and development.  Breakthrough discoveries from basic research will provide the foundation for a secure, affordable and independent energy future.”

Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) directly addressed the Administration’s 0.9 percent requested increase for the Office of Science.    In her opening remarks Johnson explained:

“I do have concerns with other areas of the Department’s proposed budget. For example, the Office of Science would receive a very minimal increase – less than 1 percent, which is even below the rate of research-related inflation, so this is effectively a cut. As we all know, the Office of Science is the largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the country, and it operates more than 30 national scientific user facilities whose applications go well beyond energy innovation. Our nation’s top researchers from industry, academia, and other federal agencies use these facilities to examine everything from new materials that will better meet our military’s needs, to new pharmaceuticals that will better treat disease, to even examining the fundamental building blocks of the universe. Given this critical role in our nation’s innovation enterprise, I look forward to having a productive discussion about the justification for the Administration’s proposed funding for the Office.”

One of Johnson’s first questions was about the Office of Science request.  Moniz acknowledged that the request, developed under very constrained conditions, was essentially flat when compared to this year.  He called the Office of Science budget “very robust” and explained that it will allow DOE’s light and neutron sources to be heavily utilized. 

Rep. Ami Bera (D-CA) asked Moniz about DOE’s support for high performance computing and the management of big data.  Moniz said this was a high priority for the department and predicted exascale machines would be available early in the next decade.  The objective is more than just speed; DOE wants a machine that can be widely utilized in applications.  The Administration sought a 13.2 percent increase in FY 2015 funding for the Advanced Scientific Computing Research program, far higher than any other Office of Science requested percentage increase for its programs.

The relevance of the Office of Science’s Biological and Environmental Research program, which has been questioned by some Republican members, was the focus of Rep. Donna Edwards’ (D-MD) questions.  Moniz described BER’s long history in human genome research and its relationship to its other programs.  BER also supports climate change modeling working with agencies such as  NOAA, NSF, NASA, and the Department of the Interior through the utilization of its high performance capabilities.   

Florida Republican Bill Posey asked Moniz about the supply of Pu-238 that is used to fuel deep space probes, and the supply of U-233 which he said was the key to space exploration.   Moniz took the questions for the record and will respond in writing.

The current balance between DOE’s support for basic and applied research programs was questioned by Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-IL).  Hultgren reiterated his belief about the important role that the federal government plays in supporting basic research and criticized what he called a rush toward federal funding of emerging technologies.  He asked Moniz about an upcoming long-range planning document from DOE’s High Energy Physics Advisory Committee to update the 2008 P5 report.  Moniz expressed his interest in reading this report, noting the difficulty the community has encountered in achieving consensus about the next major commitments to make in the field.  DOE is, Moniz assured Hultgren, “very, very strongly committed” to this research.   FY 2015 funding for the High Energy Physics program would decline 6.6 percent under the Administration’s request.  Hultgren stressed the importance of long-term budget stability saying the Administration is sending mixed signals to the domestic and international particle physics communities. 

Moniz was asked about the National Ignition Facility in a series of questions from Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA) who wanted to know how work at this facility related to the programs of the Office of Science.  Moniz praised the work being done at this facility, Sandia’s Z Pulsed Power Facility and the University of Rochester’s Omega facility.  He said a closer working relationship with the Office of Science would be premature until actual ignition is achieved. 

Moniz told the committee that “the department is a science and technology powerhouse” which plays a critical role in the support of the physical sciences.  Several times during the hearing he spoke of the difficulties tight budget constraints played in developing a balanced FY 2015 budget for the Department of Energy, a task that has now shifted to Capitol Hill operating under these same constraints.