Energy Science Gets a Boost, But No Joy for ITER

The Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Office of Science gets a healthy $226 million funding increase, to $5.12 billion, in the proposed 2011 budget. The lion’s share of the 4.6% increase would be go to the basic energy sciences (BES) office, which funds research into condensed matter physics, materials science, chemistry, and related fields and runs DOE’s x-ray synchrotrons and other user facilities. BES’s budget climbs from $1.637 billion to $1.835 billion, an increase of $198 million or 12.1%.

In contrast, funding for DOE’s fusion energy sciences (FES) program gets clipped from an estimated $426 million this year to a requested $380 million next year, a reduction of 10.8%. That reduction would come out of the United States’s contribution to the international fusion experiment, ITER, which will be built in Cadarache, France. Under the proposed budget, ITER would get $80 million next year, down from an estimated $135 million this year. The decrease marks the latest dip on the ITER budget roller coaster. In 2008, Congress zeroed out $150 million of spending on ITER in a squabble with the White House. The project got $124 million the following year.

Ironically, the current cut comes about because ITER itself has slowed down as researchers contend with design revisions that could double its $7 billion price tag. “We need to make sure that we don’t get ahead of the project as a whole,” says Thom Mason, director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, home of the U.S. ITER project office. The proposed $80 million would keep U.S. researchers fully engaged next year, Mason says. However, he worries that the dip this year will make the required funding increases in 2012 and beyond all the larger and harder to achieve.

The boost for BES is what observers expected, given Secretary of Energy Steven Chu’s goal of making the Office of Science more relevant to the world’s looming energy problem. The funding increase “is in the area where an Administration interested in energy might make its investments,” says Persis Drell, director of SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Menlo Park, California, which gets most of its funding through the BES program. BES will get $34 million for a new Energy Innovation Hub—a free-wheeling research center modeled after the Bell Labs of old—that will focus on batteries and energy storage. DOE proposed eight hubs last year, but Congress funded only three of them. "If you don't have [the storage technology], the other technologies would become moot," says Hector Abruña, a chemist at Cornell University.

The Office of Science's four other programs are slated to get smaller increases: The high energy physics budget edges up 2.3% to $829 million, the nuclear physics budget climbs 5.0% to $562 million, biological and environmental science rises 3.8% to $627 million, and spending on advanced scientific computing research jumps by 8.1% to $426 million.

With reporting by Lauren Schenkman.