Energy Research Takes a Hit in House Spending Bill for 2011

Not-so-happy days may be here again for scientists supported by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). In a mark-up of the budget for 2011, a spending panel in the House of Representatives has trimmed the budget for DOE's Office of Science from a requested $5.121 billion to $4.900 billion. That $221 million drop is actually $4 million less than the office is getting for the current fiscal year, which ends 30 September. House appropriators also reduced the amount allotted for the new Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), which received $400 million in last year's $787 billion stimulus package, from a requested $300 million to $220 million.

Researchers within the DOE science complex say they do not know which specific programs would get less than they have sought. But some officials are bracing for the worst. A laboratory budget stuck at this year's level "would be a disaster," says Pier Oddone, director of Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) in Batavia, Illinois. The last dedicated U.S. particle physics laboratory aims to start new projects while continuing to run its Tevatron collider through 2011. But doing both things will be difficult if the lab's budget remains at the 2010 level of $410 million, Oddone says.

Others note that the sting of a flat budget, if it comes to pass, will be mitigated by the fact that this year's Office of Science budget was pretty good. "If you're going to be flat, you'd like to be flat relative to a healthy budget," says Thom Mason, director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, which has a staff of more than 4800 and a budget of $1.5 billion, including $170 million in stimulus funding. Even if the 2011 budget passes as marked up, Mason says he doesn't expect things to be as bad as they were in 2008, when last-minute reductions in the proposed Office of Science budget in an omnibus spending bill created havoc throughout the DOE science program. Those cuts led to furloughs at Fermilab, layoffs at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Menlo Park, California; and the suspension of work at Oak Ridge on the U.S. contribution to the international fusion experiment, ITER, to be built in Cadarache, France.

If the low numbers are upheld by Congress—this bill must go through the full House of Representatives and then be reconciled with a companion bill in the Senate—some programs will be more vulnerable than others. Mason speculated that group includes the U.S. contribution to ITER, a proposed energy research hub focusing on electrical energy storage, and an initiative to expand DOE computing resources. "Anything that was new [in the budget request] is a likely candidate to get cut," Mason says. SLAC director Persis Drell says that until the specifics are revealed, she's keeping her cool: "It's just not enough information to get all panicky about."