Senate Budget Bill Holds Energy Department Science Level

Scientists usually howl like wounded puppies at the prospect of a flat budget for an important U.S. science agency. But given the budget-cutting mood of the current Congress, scientists supported by the Department of Energy (DOE) say they're greatly relieved at this week's action by a Senate spending panel. At the same time, there will likely be yelps from some members of the pack.

On Wednesday the Senate Appropriations Committee approved $4.843 billion for DOE's Office of Science in 2012. That's the same level as this year, and a slight bump over the $4.8 billion approved in July on a largely partisan vote by the House of Representatives covering the entire department. Although the funding is a far cry from the $5.416 billion that the Obama Administration had requested in February for the next fiscal year, which begins on 1 October, officials at the Office of Science's 10 national labs say they're not complaining. "Even staying flat when a lot of other programs are getting cut is relatively good news," says Thom Mason, director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. In budgets, "flat is the new good," quips Eric Isaacs, director of Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois.

Although the Senate bill would hold the Office of Science budget flat, it would slightly boost some of the office's six programs and cut others. The winners include basic energy sciences (BES), which supports research in materials science, condensed matter physics, chemistry and allied fields, and runs DOE's x-ray synchrotrons and other user facilities. Its budget would climb by $15 million, or 1%, to $1.693 billion. Similarly, funding for the biological and environmental research (BER) program would rise by $10 million, or 1.6%, to $628 million. BER funds DOE's basic research on climate change and biomass fuels. The advanced scientific computing research (ASCR) program, which supports most of the nation's supercomputing capabilities, would get $442 million, up $20 million (4.7%) from this year. The nuclear physics budget would creep up $10 million, or 2%, to $550 million.

The big loser in the Senate bill would be fusion energy sciences (FES). Its budget would fall by $40 million, or 11%, from this year's level to $335 million. (In contrast, the House approved a $30.5 million increase, to $406 million, a figure that tops even the Administration's request by $6.3 million.) The high-energy physics program would see its budget dip by $15 million, or 2%, to $780 million.

The Senate bill does target some specific projects. It explicitly allocates no money for the construction of a gigantic particle detector known as the Long-Baseline Neutrino Experiment. LBNE is key to the future of Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois, which is shutting down its Tevatron collider this month. The bill's report cites uncertainty over the fate of plans to convert an abandoned gold mine in South Dakota into a lab to house the detector. On the bright side, the budget includes $15 million to run the pumps that will keep the mine from flooding while DOE officials ponder their options.

More surprisingly, the bill also allocates no money to upgrade Argonne's 16-year-old Advanced Photon Source, the western hemisphere's brightest x-ray synchrotron. The Senate wants DOE to consider proceeding sequentially with the APS upgrade and the expansion of the newer x-ray laser facility at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Menlo Park, California, choosing which one should go first. Isaacs says he was surprised by that restriction, but is sure the $300-million upgrade will come to pass eventually. "We know it's here to stay," he says. "It's really just a question of the timing."

The overall $31.6 billion spending bill (which covers energy and water development and is one of 12 covering all federal agencies) reflects Congress's caution about starting new projects when future budgets are likely to be flat or declining, says Michael Lubell, a lobbyist with the American Physical Society in Washington, D.C. "They are asking, 'If the budgets in FY13, FY14, and FY15 are flat, can you sustain this kind of investment?' " he says.

Few observers expect that the House and Senate will reconcile their differences and approve a stand-alone appropriations bill for DOE anytime soon, if at all. But Lubell says he thinks that the energy and water bill might make it through on its own, rather than as part of an omnibus measure covering most of the federal government. That's because it contains money for water projects that would help East Coast communities ravaged by the flooding that followed Hurricane Irene 2 weeks ago.