Office of Science and Technology Policy Director John Holdren appeared before the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee last week to answer questions about the Obama Administration’s FY 2014 request for several important science agencies. While pointed questions were raised about several programs – most notably the fusion and high energy physics programs of the Department of Energy’s Office of Science – on the whole the hearing was less argumentative than other congressional hearings have been.
Committee Chairman Lamar Smith’s (R-TX) opening remarks were expansive in describing the issues the committee will consider. “Is America still a leader in science, space and technology or are we falling behind? How does America stay ahead in the race for global competitiveness? How can we measure the benefits of such research investments when the payoff might be many years later? And how can American innovators better leverage these federal government investments to benefit the American people? These questions are the prism through which the President’s budget request and Congress’s policy and budget decisions must be viewed. It is less a matter of dollars and cents, but more about finding common sense solutions” he said. Smith’s remarks about NASA were similar in tone, centering on how best to develop new rocket systems and space station research, and “the next destination for our astronauts to explore.” Regarding what he said was a request of $2.7 billion for climate change research programs at 13 agencies, he asked “How does this high level of spending affect other research priorities? Is some consolidation of research effort needed here?”
Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) declared “This is a good budget for research, innovation, and education.” She expressed concern about the lack of detail regarding the Administration’s plan to consolidate and realign federal STEM education programs. Johnson praised the FY 2014 requests for the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, and the laboratories of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, as well as advanced manufacturing and NASA’s climate change research programs.
Smith’s questions to Holdren are a good indicator of the chairman’s thinking on several issues on the committee’s agenda this year. He questioned whether NASA’s newly announced plan to capture and then study an asteroid was “an afterthought.” Smith wondered if NASA should be studying climate change. And he asked if those who make decisions about National Science Foundation grants should focus on more basic research that he contended would be more relevant to national needs.
Johnson’s questions centered on the Administration’s STEM education plan. While expressing support for the general goal of streamlining government programs, she worried that too much might be lost in the consolidation of programs, and was “really concerned about knowing what this restructuring is.” Holdren replied that an Administration plan to be released in May will provide the details she is seeking.
Perhaps the most pointed questions posed to Holdren involved DOE physics programs and facilities. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) and Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA) sought assurances about the future of the National Ignition Facility (NIF) and the fusion energy sciences program. Holdren expressed his commitment “to maintaining this valuable facility and using it for the variety of purposes for which it was designed.” He acknowledged that the budget for the Fusion Energy Sciences program supported by the DOE Office of Science is “under intense pressure because of the rising costs of ITER,” and spoke of the importance of the domestic fusion research program. Holdren characterized proposed reductions to NIF’s budget as “modest,” saying “it is not our intention to shut it down,” later adding that because of his prior work experience at Livermore that “I have a strong attachment to the importance of that facility.”
Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-IL) was far more critical, charging that the President does not understand the importance of fundamental research. Hultgren criticized the FY 2014 request for DOE’s High Energy Physics Program, charging that the Administration views it as a “piggy bank” to pay for DOE programs in alternative energy. “We are in a world of pain when it comes to the amounts of money available to us overall,” responded Holdren, saying that some budget requests had to decline to offset increases sought in others. Hultgren pressed his point, saying that the program had lost 25 percent of its purchasing power in the last decade. Holdren replied that money has been saved by working with international partners, pointing out that American researchers and detectors played a critical role in recent discoveries at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider. Hultgren countered, saying that research should have been done in the United States. While both agreed about the importance of the research at the proposed Long-Baseline Neutrino Experiment (LBNE), Hultgren charged that the Administration’s actions are sending “a very poor message” about the future of the program. The Department of Energy requested $10 million for LBNE in FY 2014, equal to the amount of the current budget.
Several members questioned NSF funding for a number of several social science research grants. Holdren said there was “always room for improvement,” but was unyielding in his insistence that the peer review system was the best way to determine what grants should receive funding. Holdren warned that it is a “dangerous thing” for Congress to inject itself in the process by specifying basic research areas or selecting individual grants. This issue is likely to receive more attention by the committee.
Other topics raised at this two-hour hearing included the Keystone Pipeline, management of new weather satellites, advanced manufacturing and various NASA programs. This is but the first of a series of hearings that this committee, and other House and Senate committees will have on the Administration’s FY 2014 science and technology request.