Lawmakers Converging on Vision for DOE Office of Science

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As the House and Senate prepare to convene a conference committee to reconcile their disparate proposals for sweeping national competitiveness legislation, a common vision has emerged for expanding the Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

View from Berkeley Lab over San Francisco Bay

A view from Berkeley Lab over San Francisco Bay. Legislative proposals covering the Department of Energy Office of Science are aiming to significantly bolster DOE’s national laboratory system as well as research institutions beyond.

(Image credit – Roy Kaltschmidt / Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory)

This week, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) set the wheels in motion for a procedural vote that will clear the way for a conference committee to reconcile the Senate’s U.S. Innovation and Competition Act (USICA) and the House’s America COMPETES Act of 2022.

Expanding research programs at the Department of Energy and National Science Foundation is a central aim of both USICA and the COMPETES Act. However, one likely bone of contention in the upcoming conference is that the COMPETES Act focuses on building off of existing research portfolios, while USICA targets select technologies for bursts of added funding.

Last month, though, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee took a step closer to the House vision when it produced a bipartisan bill covering the DOE Office of Science that closely tracks COMPETES Act provisions. The move demonstrated there is broad support for significantly expanding current Office of Science programs, but it is still not a foregone conclusion the vision will survive conference negotiations.

Greater than 50% increase sought in budget topline

Both the House and Senate proposals for the Office of Science set out detailed funding profiles for the next five years. These are non-binding targets and Congress would have to separately appropriate funds to meet them, year in and year out, through any political shifts that may occur.

The House proposes to ramp up the office’s budget from its current level of about $7.5 billion to $11.3 billion, cumulatively adding $13.6 billion over the five-year period. The Senate would increase the budget to a little over $12 billion, cumulatively adding $12.1 billion. The version of USICA the Senate already passed would recommend appropriating $17 billion to DOE as a whole, on top of all other funds the department would otherwise receive, specifically for advancing “key technology areas” in tandem with NSF.

The House and Senate budget profiles for the Office of Science were both developed before Congress passed its fiscal year 2022 appropriation, which undershot the bills’ targets for the year by $1.3 billion and $1 billion, respectively. The result could portend that ambitions for large R&D budget increases will ultimately be defeated by the inertia of budget politics. However, it could also be that Congress will wait until a finalized bill is enacted before providing the funding being called for.

EPSCoR expansion

The Senate bill for the Office of Science would significantly expand its Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR), which funds projects in states and territories that have historically received a relatively small share of federal R&D funds.

One proposal would recommend immediately increasing the EPSCoR budget from $25 million to $75 million and then ramping up to $150 million by fiscal year 2026. A separate provision would require that, “to the maximum extent practicable,” at least 10% of all R&D funds the Office of Science awards to institutions of higher education must go to institutions in EPSCoR jurisdictions.

That provision is less aggressive than one already in USICA that would require at least 20% of the $17 billion the act recommends for DOE go to EPSCoR. USICA would also require that at least 20% of NSF’s entire budget go to that agency’s version of EPSCoR. Furthermore, the USICA provisions do not include the “extent practicable” clause.

The EPSCoR expansion proposals are set to be a major point of contention in the upcoming House-Senate conference. A bipartisan group of 39 senators wrote to congressional leaders this week urging that the 20% set-asides for EPSCoR be retained in the final bill. However, provisions in the COMPETES Act embody an alternative viewpoint that holds research capacity-building efforts should not be tied to specific geographic jurisdictions.

DOE’s views. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee members also expressed considerable interest in the EPSCoR provisions at a hearing on March 1 with DOE Under Secretary for Science and Innovation Geri Richmond. Although Richmond broadly supported the goal of broadening the geographic distribution of R&D funding, she remarked,

In terms of 2021, the total support to universities in EPSCoR-eligible jurisdictions was $125 million in the Office of Science, or 12% of the total support provided to universities, and $25 million of that total was provided through DOE's EPSCoR program. So, we already give a lot of money to our universities in EPSCoR states that doesn’t come through the regular EPSCoR program. What I do have concerns about is establishing a quota in terms of a number that we need to meet for a percentage of the total research funding, because that would not be compatible with our principles of merit-based allocation of research funding.

Research security

The Senate bill would direct DOE to develop “tools and processes to manage and mitigate research security risks, such as a science and technology risk matrix,” and to apply them to “any grant, contract, subcontract, award, loan, program, support, or other activity” the bill covers.

DOE has already developed a risk matrix that identifies R&D areas in which partnerships with certain countries require special approval, but that policy applies only to the DOE national labs and the department itself.

The new policy would apply more broadly, but it would not outright bar collaboration with researchers in particular countries. Rather, like a similar policy the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency recently implemented, it would require funding recipients to implement mitigation measures if their project is deemed to carry a high risk associated with particular foreign “entities of concern.”

The provision defines entities of concern as institutions and individuals on the Commerce Department’s Entity List or lists specific to China that are assembled in response to certain statutes, or that the energy secretary otherwise identifies as presenting an “unmanageable threat” to U.S. national security or intellectual property.

Additional proposals for research security policies that would apply across federal science agencies are also on the table, and all proposals are likely to be subject to negotiation during the upcoming conference.

Infrastructure renovation

The House and Senate bills would respectively set target annual funding levels of $500 million and $600 million for the Science Laboratories Infrastructure account, which funds “core” infrastructure projects such as buildings, utilities, and roads at the 10 DOE national labs the Office of Science oversees. It has a current annual budget of $291 million.

Also in the mix are proposals to provide a much larger windfall for core infrastructure across all 17 DOE national labs. A provision added to the COMPETES Act on the House floor would recommend appropriating a total of $30.5 billion over five years, no less than one-third of which would be allocated through the Office of Science. The provision was included in a block of amendments supported only by Democrats, making it difficult to gauge the breadth of support for it.

A similar proposal has been put forward in the form of a Senate bill backed only by Democrats that would recommend appropriating $24.4 billion over four years, with at least one-sixth allocated through the Office of Science.

Written testimony that Under Secretary Richmond submitted to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee indicates that the 10 Office of Science national labs together have an infrastructure portfolio worth almost $22 billion, two-thirds of which is currently rated as “substandard” or “inadequate.” It also states those labs have a backlog of scheduled maintenance with costs totaling $1 billion.

The three national labs overseen by the National Nuclear Security Administration have also been coping with maintenance backlogs for some time. At the March 1 hearing, Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-CO) highlighted infrastructure needs at labs overseen by DOE’s applied energy offices, which include the National Renewable Energy Lab located in his state.

Office-wide initiatives

Midscale instrumentation. The Senate bill would direct the Office of Science to establish a “midscale instrumentation and research equipment program” that would fund the development or acquisition of items costing between $1 million and $20 million for its user facilities. The provision recommends annual funding of $150 million for the program and would direct that DOE use the program to foster partnerships with various sorts of educational institutions that have underdeveloped research capacity.

Helium conservation. The House and Senate bills would direct DOE to establish a five-year program, with a possible five-year renewal, that would fund the purchase, installation, and maintenance of equipment for capturing, recycling, and reusing helium, as well as R&D on helium alternatives. Both DOE facilities and extramural grantees would be eligible. Researchers typically use helium to cool equipment to ultracold temperatures, but supplies have been subject to periodic disruption and cost increases. The House bill includes an additional provision that would direct NSF to fund helium conservation through its Major Research Instrumentation program.

High-intensity laser facilities. Both bills would direct the Office of Science to establish a high-intensity laser research initiative in line with recommendations in a 2017 National Academies report that spotlighted a dearth of cutting-edge, U.S.-based laser facilities relative to what is available abroad. The bills would recommend the program receive an initial budget of $50 million, ramping up to $250 million.

Biological threats. Both bills would direct the Office of Science to establish an initiative to prevent and respond to emerging diseases, with the Senate version also encompassing other sorts of “biological threats.” The provisions would build on the “National Virtual Biotechnology Laboratory” that DOE launched during the early phases of the COVID-19 pandemic to make research and computing facilities preferentially available for tasks such as characterizing the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Recommended funding for the initiative is $50 million per year during its first two years.

STEM education. The bills would both direct the Office of Science to increase its collaborative activities with STEM teachers and students at all educational levels, as well as with early-career researchers. These activities would be especially focused on underrepresented groups and the institutions that serve them, and would include research capacity-building efforts as well as a traineeship program.

Fusion Energy Sciences

In their policy proposals for the Office of Science’s main science programs, the House and Senate bills differ most starkly around the Fusion Energy Sciences program, which recently received substantial policy updates through the DOE Research and Innovation Act of 2018 and the Energy Act of 2020. The Senate would leave current direction mainly in place, extending the program’s recommended budget trajectory so that it rises from its previous $901 million endpoint in fiscal year 2025 to $1 billion the next year. However, the House proposes replacing that trajectory with a more ambitious one that jumps immediately to $1 billion and ramps up to $1.4 billion. The program’s current annual budget is $713 million.

ITER. The U.S. is lagging in fulfilling its financial commitments to the France-based ITER project, which is currently receiving $242 million per year from DOE, counting both cash and in-kind contributions. The Energy Act recommended that Congress provide a one-time funding increase to $347 million to catch up, but that money has not materialized. The Senate is now targeting a flat annual funding level of $281 million, retaining the Energy Act’s recommendations for fiscal years 2022 onward, while the House recommends ramping up funding to $350 million by fiscal year 2024.

Pilot plant. While the Energy Act established that preparing to build a fusion power plant should be part of DOE’s fusion energy mission, it did not prescribe specific activities along those lines. The House now proposes supporting “at least 2 national teams, including public-private partnerships, that will develop conceptual pilot plant designs and technology roadmaps and lead to an engineering design of a pilot plant that will bring fusion to commercial viability.” The effort’s annual budget is envisioned as ramping up from an initial level of $20 million to $80 million.

Private fusion ventures. The Energy Act authorized a program to provide reimbursement to private fusion projects after they accomplish defined technological milestones. That project was originally envisioned as having a $325 million budget over five years, and Congress has just provided an initial appropriation of up to $45 million. The House now proposes providing $865 million over five years, while the Senate would only adjust the program’s funding profile to account for its delayed start.

Alternative reactor concepts. The Energy Act directed DOE to support “alternative” fusion energy concepts, such as advanced stellarators and non-tokamak confinement configurations, as well as R&D on “enabling” technologies such as magnets and liquid metals. Although the act envisioned funding the program at $50 million per year, and the House now proposes increasing that target to $75 million in fiscal year 2026, Congress has not appropriated any funding for it so far.

Fusion materials. The Energy Act did not specify funding levels for R&D on materials that would be used in fusion reactors. The House now proposes a constant level of $100 million per year, while the Senate proposes $50 million per year.

Inertial fusion energy. Congress has not yet provided funding for a Fusion Energy Sciences inertial fusion energy R&D program that was authorized in the Energy Act with a funding target of $25 million per year. The House bill would retain that target and increase it to $40 million in fiscal year 2026. DOE’s work on inertial fusion is currently mostly limited to the National Nuclear Security Administration, which prioritizes its application to the stewardship of nuclear warheads.

Basic Energy Sciences

The House and Senate proposals for the Basic Energy Sciences program are mostly in alignment, with the Senate proposing a somewhat more expansive portfolio. The House targets an immediate budget increase from $2.3 billion to more than $2.7 billion, while the Senate aims for almost $2.9 billion. Those figures would respectively ramp up to almost $3.3 billion and more than $3.4 billion.

Basic research for energy technologies. The main difference between the proposals is that only the Senate bill proposes creating three new research thrusts, each with a funding target of $50 million per year:

  • A “foundational nuclear science program” would focus on subjects such as materials, electrochemistry, computer modeling, and advanced instrumentation related to nuclear energy;
  • A “carbon materials science initiative” would focus on expanding “fundamental knowledge of coal and carbon ore chemistry useful for understanding the conversion of carbon to material products,” and establish two “carbon materials research centers”; and
  • A “carbon oxide sequestration research and geological computing initiative” would focus on geological, technological, and computational research related to carbon sequestration, and would establish up to two research centers to support related data collection, analysis, and modeling.

Electricity storage and solar fuels. Both bills would update direction for the Electricity Storage and Solar Fuels Research Initiatives that were established through the DOE Research and Innovation Act. The new provisions would nullify earlier ones prohibiting funding for commercial applications and they would set the following funding targets:  

  • $50 million per year for research related to multivalent ion materials in electric storage systems;
  • $50 million per year for modeling and simulating organic electrolytes;
  • $20 million per year for research on electrochemistry in confined mesoscale spaces;
  • $50 million per year for research on photoinduced production of hydrogen and oxygen from water, as well as sustainable photoinduced reduction of carbon dioxide to fuel products, including hydrocarbons, alcohols, carbon monoxide, and natural gas; and
  • $50 million per year for research on the photoinduced reduction of dinitrogen to ammonia, absorption of carbon dioxide from ambient air, molecular-based charge separation and storage, photoinitiated electron transfer, and catalysis in biological or biomimetic systems.

Computational materials and chemical sciences. Both bills would provide statutory backing to the Basic Energy Sciences program’s work in computational materials and chemical sciences and its support for associated research centers. It also directs the program to support the development of a web-based materials research database on known and predicted materials properties and associated computational tools, with a target budget of $10 million per year. Both bills further stipulate that the program’s user facilities should include “autonomous chemistry and materials synthesis and characterization facilities that leverage advances in artificial intelligence,” complementing its current suite of X-ray light sources, neutron sources, and nanoscience centers.

Construction projects. Both bills would recommend essentially identical funding profiles for the program’s current portfolio of construction projects, with most projects proceeding apace. However, funding would substantially accelerate for work on two projects still in their early stages: the proposed Second Target Station at Oak Ridge National Lab’s Spallation Neutron Source and an energy upgrade to SLAC’s Linac Coherent Light Source II, a new X-ray free electron laser facility.

Proposed Funding Profiles for Major BES Construction Projects

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High Energy Physics

The House and Senate bills both endorse the High Energy Physics program’s current portfolio of research and construction projects, and they recommend an immediate increase of nearly $300 million in its current $1.1 billion budget. The program’s target budget would then ramp up until peaking at over $1.7 billion in fiscal year 2025.

Both bills propose a funding profile for the flagship Long-Baseline Neutrino Facility project that would quickly ramp up from its current annual budget of $189 million to a peak level of $400 million by fiscal year 2024. That is considerably more aggressive than the profile DOE is currently considering in view of increases in project costs and competing demands. The bills do not offer distinct direction for DOE contributions to the internationally led Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment project, which is proceeding in tandem with LBNF.

LBNF/DUNE Proposed Funding Profiles FYI 22-28

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Nuclear Physics

The Nuclear Physics program’s current funding level of $728 million is only $52 million short of the target for fiscal year 2022 in the House and Senate bills, which propose a ramp up to almost $1.2 billion. Neither bill includes extensive direction for the program.

Both propose an aggressive funding profile for the flagship Electron-Ion Collider project at Brookhaven National Lab, with an immediate increase to $101 million, rising to $305 million over five years. DOE estimates the project will need about $120 million in fiscal years 2022 and 2023 to meet its next management milestone on schedule, but Congress has only provided $20 million for fiscal year 2022.

Advanced Scientific Computing Research

The House and Senate propose essentially identical funding targets for the Advanced Scientific Computing Research program that ramp up to more than $1.5 billion by fiscal year 2026. The program’s current annual budget is about $1 billion. The bills’ policy provisions for the program are nearly identical.

Beyond exascale. With DOE on the verge of operating two pathbreaking exascale computing systems, the bills would direct DOE to develop a strategy for achieving systems that exceed those systems’ capabilities. Potential focal points include post-Moore’s law computing architectures, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, edge computing, and “extreme heterogeneity.”

Quantum network and user access. The bills include provisions supplementing the National Quantum Initiative Act of 2018 that endorse DOE’s work on a quantum network and direct the department to establish a “Quantum User Expansion for Science and Technology” (QUEST) program. The QUEST program would facilitate access to U.S. quantum computing hardware to support research projects and the development of a quantum computing workforce and supply chains, with an annual funding target that starts at $30 million and rises to $100 million.

Energy-efficient computing. The bills would direct the program to support energy-efficient computing efforts, including both hardware and software approaches as well as heterogeneous computing architectures.

Algorithmic bias. The bills would direct DOE to issue guidance to users of its high-performance computing facilities on “how those capabilities should be employed in a manner that mitigates and, to the maximum extent practicable, avoids harmful algorithmic bias.”

Biological and Environmental Research

The House and Senate bills would set similar funding targets for the Biological and Environmental Research program, which currently has an annual budget of $815 million. The House’s proposal recommends a ramp up to $1.1 billion while the Senate proposal would bring the budget closer to $1.2 billion.

Both bills propose extensive policy direction for the program, with the Senate bill also including various provisions not in the House bill that focus, for instance, on biosystems design, bioproduct development, and the use of advanced computing methods in systems biology research. The Senate bill also proposes a “Microbial Molecular Phenotyping Capability Project” that would aim to “accelerate the discovery of new protein functions and metabolic pathways in microbial systems.”

Bioenergy research centers. Both bills authorize the program to support up to six bioenergy research centers, with a funding target of $30 million per center per year. DOE currently supports four of such centers.

Earth and environmental systems research. The bills would provide statutory backing to the program’s Earth and environmental systems research portfolio that would authorize support for “midscale, multi-institutional research centers” in addition to individual grants and large-scale experiments and user facilities.

Low-dose radiation research. Through previous legislation, Congress has directed DOE to reestablish its research program on the biological effects of low doses of ionizing radiation and to include an additional focus on radiation in spaceflight environments. In its latest appropriation, Congress provided $8 million for that work. However, Congress’ funding target for this year is currently $20 million, and the House and Senate bills both propose that the target should rise to $50 million by fiscal year 2026.

About the author

FYI is an editorially independent science policy news service from the American Institute of Physics. If you are interested in republishing this content, please contact [email protected].