Upbeat Appropriations Hearings on DOE Science Request

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Publication date: 
30 March 2007

House and Senate appropriators reacted very positively to Energy Under Secretary for Science Ray Orbach and the FY 2008 request for the Office of Science at key hearings this month. While six months remain before the start of the new fiscal year, all signs are upbeat on the budget request.

It is clear that there is much good will for Under Secretary Orbach. Said House Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Peter Visclosky (D-IN) in his March 14 opening remarks to Orbach: “You come before us as a science manager who has earned my respect and, I believe, the respect of everyone on our subcommittee and the gratitude of the science community for your work managing the Office of Science at DOE.” Senate subcommittee chairman Byron Dorgan’s (D-ND) March 21 remarks were similar: “Mr. Orbach, perhaps sometime you can whisper to us the secret of your relationship with OMB that you come here with a proposed $600 million budget increase. You, indeed, are a rare species in this coming fiscal year.”

There is agreement on both sides of the aisle and both sides of the Capitol that science is important to America’s future. At the House hearing, Ranking Member David Hobson (R-OH) remarked, “in my opinion, science is the best hope for the future of this country . . . science is going to be the future of this country.”

Another strong theme that emerged at the hearings was the necessity of good management. Said Dorgan: “A doubling of funding over nine years . . . is an admirable goal, but we have to make sure there’s a plan that meets a defined goal.” Visclosky: “Frankly, without the expectation of good governance and good stewardship of the public’s money, it would be difficult to even consider the large increase requested by your office.” Hobson: “We need to understand exactly what the nation will get for that increased funding and how you will determine priorities within that expanded research.” As examples of “prudent project management,” Orbach cited the approach being taken on the proposed International Linear Collider and the Rare Isotope Beam, which was commended by Visclosky.

Strong sentiment was also expressed for better coordination of DOE’s basic and applied research programs. This point was stressed by Ranking Member Pete Domenici (R-NM) who explained that the Energy Policy Act gives the Under Secretary the responsibility to establish science policy for the national laboratories. Said Domenici: “DOE should move more aggressively to integrate the NNSA [National Nuclear Security Administration] into the DOE Science program. Doing so can work to advance our scientific missions and promote the American Competitiveness Initiative that has growing support with Congress and the administration.” He later added, “I still expect to see a viable research program that supports non-weapons research on facilities like NIF [National Ignition Facility] and [Sandia’s] Z [machine.]” Other senators and representatives made this point regarding the development of alternative energy sources and nuclear power. Orbach agreed: “We are one department, and we have been working very hard together to strengthen the relationship between the department’s basic and applied research programs,” citing cellulosic ethanol, electrical energy storage, and advanced nuclear fuel cycle basic research programs.

Also discussed at the House hearing by Visclosky was his concern that there will be “absolute fairness” in competitions involving the national laboratories and other interests when awards are made for projects such as three new bio-energy research centers. Orbach replied, “I can again assure you that when it comes to the core research function . . . that it is a level playing field.”

There was one issue where some representatives were less pleased: earmarking. Hobson engaged in a lengthy dialogue with Orbach about the manner in which the Office of Science was treating the recipients of previously earmarked funds. Hobson acknowledged that “Congress explicitly stripped out all the ‘06 earmarks but left you the budget authority of approximately $129 million that went with those earmarks.” He then quoted sections of an OMB memo (see http://www.aip.org/fyi/2007/027.html) that reiterated how funding decisions should be made. Hobson wanted to know how the Office of Science would determine if any FY 2006 earmarks would continue this year. Orbach explained that “the normal process of peer review” would be applied, the components of which he strongly defended in a later round of questions with another representative. At the Senate hearing, Orbach explained that he had sent letters to recipients of FY 2006 earmarked funds regarding the application procedure for peer-reviewed current year funding.

Dialogue between the appropriations subcommittees and the Office of Science will continue in the weeks ahead during private meetings. The tone of these key hearings was very positive, as indicated by Senate subcommittee chairman Dorgan who said: “I appreciate, especially, the importance of this office. It’s not the highest profile office in the federal government, but in many ways, it holds the key to tomorrow, and opportunities for our country for tomorrow.”