Physical Science's "Cardinal" Stepping Down

The decision by senior party figure Byron Dorgan (D-SD) not to run for reelection next year is being seen as a big blow for Democrats. But what will the retirement of Dorgan, the Senate's top man on physical science funding, mean for science?

Too early to tell. But it's worth reviewing Dorgan's record as he prepares to work up his last budget for the Department of Energy (DOE).

Dorgan is the chair of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, which among other agencies funds DOE. DOE has never been the main concern of the genial North Dakotan, whose top priority as so-called Energy and Water Cardinal since taking the helm in 2007 has been considered to be a water project to protect the city of Devils Lake from flooding.

Some physical science boosters have complained in the past about the Senate's role in funding energy research. In general, House appropriators have tended to propose a DOE research budget higher than the White House request, and the Senate version has come in lower. So some have blamed Dorgan. "But that's just negotiation," says a lobbyist, who notes that this year, for example, the House cut a DOE request to fund eight so-called innovation hubs down to one. The Senate, by contrast, called for three—and that number was retained in the final version.

I asked the budget guru at AAAS (which publishes ScienceInsider), Patrick Clemins, to look at the growth of DOE's R&D budget since Dorgan took over. The first budget he wrote as cardinal was the FY2008 budget:

Real Dollars (constant 2009)

2007: $9.2 billion

2008: $9.9 billion

2009: $10.2 billion

2009 stimulus (spent over 2 years): $2.4 billion in R&D (out of $38.7 billion total)

2010: $10.5 billion

So although Dorgan—a lifelong public servant—may not be a scientist, it's hard to make the case that he has curtailed funding for the physical sciences.

If the Democrats manage to retain control of the Senate after the November elections, there are likely to be several new cardinals. The most senior member on the energy and water panel is Robert Byrd (D-WV). But the 92-year-old legend was removed as chair of the overall appropriations committee last year and is unlikely to lead a subcommittee. After him comes Patty Murray (D-WA), who watches out for her state's marine interests but lacks much of a record on DOE or the physical sciences.

The key figure in predicting the Senate's attitude toward the physical sciences may actually be a professional staffer, Doug Clapp. As clerk for the subcommittee, he has concentrated on maintaining funding to clean up the former nuclear site at Hanford in Richland, Washington. (Clapp is a former staffer for Murray.) That's led some science lobbyists to complain that physical science research has not gotten the attention it deserves. Clapp may well stay on as clerk given that it's the chair of the Appropriations Committee—currently Senator Daniel Inouye (D-HI)—who chooses the subcommittee clerks, not the cardinals. That could preserve the status quo for DOE.