House appropriators met on March 17 to review the FY 2016 budget request for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science. Appearing before the Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee were Franklin Orr, Under Secretary for Science and Energy and Patricia Dehmer, Director of the Office of Science. Of note were discussions on funding for the Fusion Energy Sciences and Nuclear Physics programs.
Subcommittee Chairman Mike Simpson (R-ID) opened the hearing stating “the Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the United States and its activities have resulted in some of the most important scientific breakthroughs of the twentieth century.” Referring to the high construction cost of new facilities, Simpson spoke of the need for international partnerships, telling the witnesses “Ensuring that our taxpayer dollars are contributing to breakthroughs that enhance American competitiveness within this international context is just one of the challenges you need to address.”
The Office of Science requested $5,339.8 million for FY 2016, an increase of $272.1 million or 5.4 percent. Facility operations comprise 37 percent of the request, research 39 percent, and facility construction 11 percent. Simpson’s only overall comment on the request followed his above statement on challenges facing the Office of Science, declaring “The balance between optimal operation of our current facilities and constructing new ones is another. While the budget request avoids choosing between these activities by providing increases for both, the reality is that the current fiscal climate does require such tough decisions.”
Ranking Member Marcy Kaptur (D-OH) spoke of the importance of scientific research to economic growth, commented on the often lengthy period between discoveries and new technologies and said scientific research is “too easily sacrificed for short term concerns.” She added, “The American people should understand the tradeoffs that our nation is faced with in the name of budgetary scarcity.”
Following opening statements from Orr and Dehmer the hearing turned to a brief discussion about international competition and high performance computing. The discussion about ITER was lengthier and more pointed, with Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ) asking about a report finding the project’s management to be “overly bureaucratic” and slow to implement reform recommendations. He asked about the status of these reforms and if there are steps appropriators could take to ensure that tax dollars are wisely spent.
Dehmer replied that the top recommendation of this report was to change ITER’s senior management, which was done at a March 5 meeting of the ITER Council appointing Bernard Bigot the new Director-General. Dehmer said DOE was “very pleased with that switch” and was looking forward to the future. When asked about the level of the funding for the project, Dehmer replied she was only going to address the FY 2016 request that she declared “is the appropriate amount.” Orr commented that Bigot had “put together an aggressive 200 day plan to take a hard look at every aspect of how they’re operating” and said DOE would make further judgements as that plan is implemented. He called Bigot a “very capable and respected new leader” while acknowledging that “there’s a lot to do and it will require the cooperation of all the participants.” There was discussion about the domestic fusion program, with Dehmer explaining that “a very robust plan” with “half a dozen elements or so” was being developed. When pressed by Frelinghuysen if the United States should continue to support ITER, Orr replied affirmatively. There was later discussion about the international and domestic fusion programs, with Orr telling the appropriators “we think this is a balanced approach to meeting both the international objectives and the domestic program,” noting that there is not a hard distinction between them since many U.S.-provided ITER components are designed and constructed in the United States.
Rep. Michael Honda (D-CA) asked Dehmer about upgrades to light sources. She outlined completed or in-process projects at several facilities, with Orr stressing the need to enhance user facilities to remain competitive with other countries. Honda also asked about nanotechnology user facilities, with Dehmer commenting that “material sciences are incredibly important to this country.” Other Office of Science programs were discussed such as high performance computing and the importance of user facilities to corporations.
Toward the end of the hearing, Simpson predicted the Nuclear Physics program “would likely face some difficult tradeoffs” between major facilities in the future. The Obama Administration requested a $29.1 million increase for the program. “We have to think about priorities under a flat scenario” Simpson told Dehmer, referring to an advisory committee recommendation to close the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider. Dehmer replied it was “absolutely the wrong time to close the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider. It is producing world leading results,” adding that a new long range planning report would be issued this fall that will consider the program under different budget scenarios. Simpson pushed Dehmer to consider what should be done if the budget stays flat or declines; Dehmer resisted telling Simpson: “I’m saying I’m going to support that [requested] budget for nuclear.”
The hearing concluded with Kaptur asking the witnesses to consider ways to expand the economic reach of the national laboratories into areas with struggling economies.
Note: selections are from a transcript prepared by and used with the permission of CQ Roll Call.