Energy Officials: Science Law Obama Signed Bolsters Research

The America COMPETES Act, signed on Tuesday by President Barack Obama, is light on specifics about the Department of Energy (DOE), but officials at that agency are grateful that the wide-ranging research and education legislation authorizes steady increases for physical science research. The partisan process which created it bodes poorly on the prospects for actually getting the increases it endorses, however, and the new law fails to mention many research and education programs whose inclusion might have helped department officials make the case for their funding. "I'm quite pleased with it," says Steven Koonin, under secretary for science at the Department of Energy. "Politics, I have learned, is the art of the possible."

The law supports increases that, if granted, would continue a doubling path for DOE's Office of Science, which has a current budget of $4.9 billion. It authorizes $5.25 billion in 2011, $5.61 billion in 2012, and $6 billion in 2013.

Koonin called the 2012 authorization level, which will play a role in budget debates next year, "a terrific number for us," adding that the "expression of support ... reaffirms Congress's commitment to the doubling of physical science research."

But he acknowledged some drawbacks.

He said that it "would have been nice" had the bill included mention of the new Energy Innovation Hubs program to support large, multidisciplinary teams working in discrete periods on major technical challenges in energy. (Energy Secretary Steven Chu initially asked for money for eight hubs, but Congress has so far funded only three.) Guidance on the hubs was the kind of detail, included in 52 pages of extensive authorizations for several other DOE programs, that was included in the House of Representatives bill that was passed last May. That bill, which had been crafted with much input from the bureaucrats, laid out specific guidance for the agency on new programs like the hubs, its long-standing research efforts in nuclear, fossil fuel, and renewable energy, and burgeoning efforts in science education.

The final legislation, proposed by the Senate late in the lame-duck session and embraced by the House, contained just 4.5 pages for DOE. Language which made the cut, however, including sections on graduate fellowships, scientific user facilities, simulations and education programs should "assist in our efforts" in securing funding in a tough political environment, said Koonin.

Meanwhile, Arun Majumdar, head of the 2-year-old Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy shop at DOE, says that passing the authorizing language "was a confirmation that we are on the right track." The agency received $300 million in the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, allowing it to begin despite the absence of any money in the regular 2009 or 2010 appropriations bills. And its 2011 budget remains unclear since the entire government, including DOE, is now under a so-called continuing resolution that extends 2010 budget levels. For Majumdar's agency, that number is zero.

But Majumdar believes the blessing bestowed by the COMPETES Act by merely mentioning his agency is an important step. "We will be very happy to get whatever Congress deems appropriate," he says.