Congress Backs DOE Science Budget, But Not New Ideas

Congressional spending panels are taking nicks and cuts out of the 2010 budget request for the Department of Energy (DOE). So far, the department's bread and butter, lab-based research programs are doing well, while some of the initiatives and redirections that the Obama Administration has requested are receiving rougher treatment.

Meeting late into the night yesterday, the House of Representatives appropriations committee came within $13 million of the president's $4.94 billion request for the Office of Science. That's a $171 million increase over the regular 2009 appropriation for the office, which also received $1.6 billion this winter from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, known familiarly as the stimulus package. Research funding for the myriad basic and applied fields the office supports actually exceeds the president's request, however, since the committee cut $22 million from DOE's request for staffing the office.

This morning, the Senate spending panel that controls DOE's budget gave the science office $4.90 billion, or $29 million less than the House version and $42 million under the request. Although details of the Senate bill won't be released until after it is taken up by the full appropriations committee tomorrow, both the House and Senate appear very supportive of a decision by the Bush and Obama Administrations to seek a 10-year doubling of the office's budget.

House members are much less enthusiastic, however, about plans by Energy Secretary Steven Chu to fund eight large energy research centers, or hubs. They have given Chu only $35 million of the $280 million he requested for what he has dubbed "Bell Lablets." The committee's press release attributes the cut to "redundancy with existing initiatives and a lack of implementation details." It gives the same explanation for its decision to allocate $7.5 million rather than the $115 million requested for a new science education and workforce training effort called RE-ENERGYSE.

The House committee also erased the $10 million requested for the new Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy. Chu has yet to announce a director for the agency, which received $400 million in the stimulus package and $15 million in DOE's regular 2009 budget.

The news was better for supporters of hydrogen vehicles and fuel cell research programs. The Administration’s budget proposed cutting $100 million from the applied research effort on hydrogen vehicles while retaining $68 million for more basic fuel cell research funding. Both the House and Senate committees kept the $68 million for fuel cells. The House then added back $40 million for hydrogen vehicles, while the Senate subcommittee added $122 million, for a total of $190 million. Senator Byron Dorgan (D-ND), chair of the spending panel, said in a statement at the markup that research efforts on hydrogen vehicles are critical to coming up with “game-changing” energy technologies.