Tuesday’s afternoon hearing before the House Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee on the FY 2015 budget request for the Office of Science was very upbeat. Members were well-informed and enthusiastic about the programs supported by this office. Left largely unmentioned was the tight budget cap that appropriators will be operating under as the subcommittee moves, Chairman Mike Simpson (R-ID) said, to mark-up its funding bill “relatively early.”
“The Office of Science is one of our bill’s top priorities” Simpson told Office of Science Acting Director Patricia Dehmer as the hearing got underway. Dehmer was the sole witness at the hour-and-twenty-minute hearing. The Administration is seeking a 0.9 percent increase for the Office of Science. Total funding for all discretionary programs is limited to an increase of 0.2 percent.
Simpson’s opening prepared statement made several important points. Addressing Dehmer, he said:
“The challenge you’ll be facing this afternoon is . . . to explain to this Subcommittee, populated as it is with non-scientists like myself, why investing in your programs is a good use of taxpayer dollars. Your program has, of course, generally received broad bipartisan support. However, as budgets continue to be constrained, you and your colleagues will have to work even harder to find ways to illustrate the importance of your programs as they compete with others for funding.
“This challenge is made even harder because it seems as if the very nature of scientific investment has changed over the last couple of decades. Cutting edge science is more reliant than ever before on multibillion dollar facilities that few, if any, countries are willing to fully support alone. That means investigating the biggest scientific questions of our day relies at least partly on multinational teams. At the same time, it is difficult to justify spending billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars on international efforts abroad when our constituents here at home need jobs and support.
“Yet even our domestic facilities, many of which are among the best in the world, face an uncertain future. Realistically, your out-year [future] budgets are most likely flat, if not declining. We’ve been telling you this for years. Yet, your budgets are increasingly consumed by operating your existing machines and constructing new ones. I hope we’ll hear today what you feel to be the correct balance between facility operations and investments on one hand, and on the other hand investing in the highly trained workforce needed to preserve our country’s position leading the international scientific community.”
In her opening remarks Ranking Member Marcy Kaptur (D-OH) expressed concern that federal support for research is falling short, and wanted to know about the trade-offs that the Office of Science has been required to make as earlier much more optimistic funding scenarios have failed to materialize. Kaptur, who represents the Toledo, Ohio area, spoke several times during the hearing about how federal research funding is concentrated in different areas of the country.
There was little discussion about the provision in the FY 2014 appropriations legislation requiring the Office of Science to fully fund grants of one million dollars or less when first awarded. Simpson said his subcommittee “finds tremendous value in fully funding up front” to allow programs to respond to market conditions and funding constraints and to avoid the “mortgaging” of future year appropriations. Simpson asked Dehmer how the transition to this system was going; she replied “we are absolutely following the direction to the letter.” “Okay,” Simpson replied. There was no discussion about the reduction in the proposal success rate for three to five years as this adjustment is made.
Requested reductions for FY 2015 funding for the High Energy Physics Program (down 6.6 percent) and the Fusion Sciences Program (down 17.6 percent) were mentioned by Simpson and Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE). Members seemed satisfied when Dehmer said some high energy physics projects are nearing completion and that DOE was awaiting the recommendations from a forthcoming report from its High Energy Physics Advisory Panel. More time was taken when discussing ITER. Fortenberry cited this statement in Dehmer’ s prepared testimony, “Our present assessment of the international project is that it cannot, under current conditions, meet the most recent schedule put forward by the ITER Organization.” (See PDF page 4 here.) He said the project “appears to be pretty chaotic,” and wondered “is this a waste of money?” Dehmer said the requested $150 million (down from $200 million this year) is appropriate, explaining that it is common for large, cutting-edge facilities to encounter these kinds of management problems. “It is possible for that project to turn around” she said, reiterating the U.S. absolute commitment to the program. When pressed, Dehmer predicted first fusion might be achieved around 2023. The United States has committed to providing 9 percent of ITER’s total cost, up to $2.4 billion, that may be reevaluated in the later stages of the project.
There was much discussion and awareness by the appropriators about the importance of high-end computing. Dehmer called a programmable exascale machine that will be 500 to 1,000 times more powerful as current machines, that will be useable by researchers, the “highest priority” of the Office of Science. “The world is in a race” to develop these machines she said. This machine will be completed in the early 2020s.
The merits of international cooperation on expensive facilities were also discussed. In areas such as the Large Hadron Collider such cooperation is desirable. In other cases, such as high-end computing or materials research, Dehmer said “I really don’t think so.” The appropriators seemed to agree with her, as well as about the importance of DOE’s light sources and other user facilities. Also receiving a fair amount of attention was DOE’s support of research in alternative fuels.
This was a good hearing for the Office of Science. In coming weeks these appropriators will be making critical and difficult decisions about funding for the Office of Science and other programs under their jurisdiction. Remarking on the consequences of deciding to fund or not to fund a research program that might lead to important benefits for future generations, one appropriator remarked “that’s a heavy responsibility.”