At Materials Science Hearing, Science Committee Debates R&D Policy for the Trump Era

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Publication date: 
3 July 2017

At a hearing last week, both Republican and Democratic members of the House Science Committee praised federally supported work in materials research. They also offered contrasting views on how the federal government should structure its support for R&D and technology commercialization.


A senior engineering specialist uses a sputtering system in the Center for Nanoscale Materials clean room at Argonne National Laboratory. At a hearing last week, members of the House Science Committee praised materials R&D work at Argonne and other federal facilities.

(Image credit – Argonne National Laboratory/Mark Lopez)

The Energy and the Research and Technology Subcommittees of the House Science Committee held a joint hearing last week dedicated to materials science. In his opening statement, Energy Subcommittee Chair Randy Weber (R-TX) explained,

Hearings like today’s help remind us of the Science Committee’s core focus — the basic research that provides the foundation for technology breakthroughs. Before we can ever see the deployment of a better battery, a stronger material for protective gear, or wear-resistant materials for medicine or energy production, we must invest in the science infrastructure that makes these discoveries possible.

Weber’s references to the committee’s “core focus” and to “basic research” resonate with phrases the Trump administration is using to describe work it wishes to support while rolling back R&D programs it believes should be left to industry. Although there was bipartisan agreement at the hearing that materials science should be well funded, committee Democrats argued that implementing the administration’s views on R&D would hobble the commercialization of new materials.

Hearing showcases partisan split over federal investment in applied science

The hearing came the day after House appropriators released a draft bill that flat funds the Department of Energy Office of Science while halving the budget for the DOE Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) and completely defunding the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy. The legislation suggests some congressional acceptance of the logic of prioritizing early-stage research that is embedded in the deep cuts the Trump budget proposes for more applied work.

Weber maintained that “changing priorities” in appropriations would not close off the benefits reaped from fields like materials science. He said that “basic and early-stage research in materials science is exactly what this committee has always supported.”

Committee Democrats, though, were unconvinced. Rep. Marc Veasey (D-TX), the ranking member of the Energy Subcommittee, said, “The administration’s budget would absolutely decimate the all-important field of materials science in the United States.” He argued that the claim that industry would support defunded work is “not based in reality.”

Rep. Daniel Lipinski (D-IL), the ranking member of the Research and Technology Subcommittee, shared Veasey’s view. He pointed to the Obama administration’s creation of the Materials Genome Initiative (MGI) to illustrate how federal agencies can pursue R&D that increases the speed at which advanced materials transition from laboratories to the marketplace.

Witnesses say broad federal support crucial to commercialization

The hearing’s witness panel attested unanimously to the importance of federal support at all stages of R&D and commercialization. Matthew Tirrell, Argonne National Laboratory’s deputy director for science, said in his opening remarks,

Bringing fundamental advances in materials science to reality for the ultimate benefit of society requires a continuum of investments at various stages of development. … National laboratories play a unique role in connecting basic research to eventual commercial technologies. They differ from universities in performing both basic and applied research in an environment where unmatched [materials] characterization facilities and capabilities for scale-up exist.

Laurie Locascio, the acting head of laboratory programs at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, praised an ongoing shift from trial-and-error toward the rational design of new materials as a “game changer.” She also highlighted the role of the MGI in bringing industry players together and speeding commercialization. NIST, she said, provides technical assistance to both established and nascent industries, declaring, “We see ourselves as industry’s national lab — a well-respected, trusted, non-regulatory scientific agency that forms strong partnerships with industry to tackle critical national needs.”

Fred Higgs, a professor of mechanical engineering at Rice University, testified as a beneficiary of federal facilities and programs. He emphasized that federal support plays a critical role in the development of scientific talent, and reported,

These days, many companies are desperately looking for PhDs to hire from universities and yet they spend no money supporting university research. A perfect storm is being set up where companies expect PhDs to just magically be output without anyone making an investment input.

Asked by Lipinski about the “false boundary … between basic research and applied research,” and the consequences of not funding development work, Adam Schwartz, director of DOE’s Ames Laboratory, affirmed that the “pipeline model of technology development is only applicable a few percent of the time.”

Much more common, Schwartz said, is a frequent interchange between research and development replete with roadblocks. He pointed to the case of novel “caloric” materials, which, as he had already told Weber, were invented at Ames Laboratory about 20 years ago, funded through DOE’s Basic Energy Sciences (BES) program. Schwartz said BES ceased supporting work on the material in response to industry interest in commercializing it in refrigeration technology. But, he told Lipinski, companies “were not able to, or chose not to, invest as much as they needed to [in order] to get that product available.” He said that it was only recently that EERE had reinvigorated work in the area at Ames Laboratory.

Committee members elicit comments on workforce and facilities

Asked by Veasey about the consequences of the Trump budget for Ames Laboratory, Schwartz said it would reduce the lab’s budget by 58 percent, which he said would hinder its ability to meet its mission and goals. Pressed for details, Schwartz disclosed that internal estimates suggested the lab would have to lay off about 40 percent of its overall staff if the lab did not divert funds from the current fiscal year. Veasey asked the same questions of Tirrell, who replied the cuts would impact Argonne’s “capabilities and workforce.” He said that, given the uncertain fate of the Trump budget, the lab had not made public any internal estimates of potential job losses “partly as a measure to protect morale.”

Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR) asked Schwartz about what consequences cuts to EERE specifically would have on materials science at Ames Laboratory. He replied that the lab has four major projects funded through EERE, including the Critical Materials Institute energy innovation hub, the Caloric Materials Consortium, and work on powder synthesis for 3D printing.

In response to questions from Veasey and Rep. Bill Foster (D-IL) — a former project leader at Fermilab whose district encompasses Argonne National Laboratory — Schwartz and Higgs described what they thought the impact of cuts on researchers’ morale might be. Schwartz said it would certainly send a bad message to students and younger researchers. Higgs affirmed that if senior researchers were forced to leave an institution, it would cause early-career researchers to ponder such questions as, “Should we all try to head for Silicon Valley? Should we all do something with a right-now implication as opposed to a long-term implication?”

Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-IL) used his time to emphasize the need for continuing federal investment in facilities and collaborations. He asked Tirrell to discuss examples local to Hultgren’s district in northern Illinois: the in-progress upgrades to the Advanced Photon Source at Argonne and the Chicago Quantum Exchange announced on June 20.

Weber concluded the hearing, emphasizing the bipartisan support for the kind of work represented by the witness panel. Referring to the Trump administration’s budget request, he said,

We look at this budget and we say that is simply a submitted budget. But I’m encouraged. I think we’re going to continue to be able to help with research as much as absolutely possible. We are trying to do a lot of things, spinning a lot of plates. If y’all could quickly come up with a material to make those plates lighter, it would make our job a lot easier.

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