DOE Science for the Future

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Publication date: 
16 January 2001

A thought-provoking discussion paper has been issued that calls for changes in the management of DOE science, proposing an internal revision of the department or its combination with several Commerce Department programs, and possibly the USGS, in a new structure within the Department of Commerce.

These comments were made in a six-page discussion paper, "DOE Science for the Future," dated December 14, authored by Robert C. Richardson, James S. Langer, Martin Blume, Sidney Drell, John H. Gibbons, William Happer, Martha Krebs, W. Carl Lineberger, Albert Narath, Burton Richter, and George H. Trilling.

"The advent of a new Administration and Congress provides an opportunity to address emerging problems in ways that may not be possible at other times," the authors declare in the preface. They continue, "We, the authors of this discussion paper, are especially concerned about the future of the scientific research supported by the Department of Energy." They note that DOE science funding has not fared as well as other federal science budgets, worsened by "Weakness in overall federal support for the physical sciences (as compared to biology and medicine) and by the perception of management and security problems" at DOE. The authors conclude: "We believe that this situation has reached crisis proportions, and that future US leadership in many essential areas of science is in jeopardy."

DOE's support of civilian basic research and university faculty and students "are neither adequately understood in Washington nor appreciated by the public at large," which is partially responsible for the stagnation and decline of its science budget. Other problems in the department's weapons and environmental programs have given DOE "a negative image." The Director of the Office of Science lacks theauthority and visibility of the directors of NSF, NIH, and NASA, hence "it has become very difficult for DOE Science to make its case for necessary long-term investments in research."

Before proposing two management alternatives, the authors note their agreement that DOE should avoid any "one-size" solution to optimizing the performance of the various missions, and stress that "Science and technology in the United States has prospered greatly from diversity of funding sources and modes of support.... The diversity of funding sources should be maintained."

Two Alternative Strategies are then proposed, without a stated preference. Alternative A assumes that DOE remains "essentially intact," and is as follows: "Enhance the leadership and visibility of DOE science and energy by revising the management structure within the Department." One way to do so, the paper suggests, is by elevating the Director of the Office of Science to the rank of Under Secretary for Science and Energy, and Science Adviser to the Secretary. A variant of this alternative would be to change the mandate of DOE and to convert it to a sub-cabinet agency. Alternative B would to "Combine DOE science and energy programs with NIST, NOAA, and possibly USGS to form the major part of a new21st Century Department of Commerce." This new entity could be similar to that of NIH within the Department of Health and Human Services. "Its primary mission would be the initiation and management of large-scale and/or multidisciplinary research."

Two other alternatives are characterized as "highly undesirable." The first is to "move DOE science into NSF." "There would be a serious mismatch between the science and the management activities" the paper warns, and also the degradation of what "works very well in DOE or NSF." The other "highly undesirable" alternative is to "create a Department of Science, including all Federal R&D programs." About this the paper cautions, "This consolidation would have the very major disadvantage of completely eliminating the diversity of funding sources as well as destroying the unique nature of the NSF."

The full text of this paper can be accessed here.

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