House Panel Would Protect Domestic Fusion Program

The details won't be out for another week, but in their version of the 2013 budget for the Department of Energy (DOE), legislators on a spending panel in the House of Representatives would reverse dramatic cuts to the U.S. fusion research program that the White House proposed in February. They would, however, take a big bite out of DOE's fledgling Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), which aims to quickly develop the most promising energy-related basic research for technological exploitation.

Overall, the version of the DOE budget approved yesterday would give DOE's Office of Science, the United States's single largest funder of the physical sciences, $4.824 billion next year. That's $168 million less than the Obama Administration had requested and $50 million less than the agency received this year. "It's somewhat disappointing that the modest increase requested by the Administration wasn't supported," says Thom Mason, director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, one of DOE's 10 science labs. On the other hand, Mason says, the situation is far better than 14 months ago, when House appropriators proposed slashing DOE's science budget by 18% for what was then left of fiscal year 2011, which ended 30 September. "Overall, [the current number] does show a recognition that basic research is important," Mason says.

DOE's science budget falls within the jurisdiction of the House energy and water appropriations subcommittee. In his opening statement at the bill's markup, Representative Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ) noted that, "within science research, funding for the domestic fusion program is restored to last year's level, and the international fusion program is increased to come closer to our commitments."

In the White House's proposed budget, spending on domestic fusion research would fall 16% from current levels, to $248 million. The White House would then use the $48 million saved to increase the country's annual contribution to the $23 billion fusion experiment ITER, under construction in Cadarache, France, from $105 million this year to $150 million next year.

But the cuts would compromise the United States's ability to exploit its investment in ITER, researchers say. In particular, they would require shuttering a major fusion experiment at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge and would lead to the layoff of 100 of 430 staff members at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory in New Jersey.

Where would the extra money for the fusion program come from? House appropriators have yet to release the breakdown among the Office of Science's six research programs. But an obvious target would be the basic energy sciences (BES) program, which is twice as big as any other program. BES funds research in condensed matter physics, materials science, chemistry, and related fields and runs DOE's x-ray sources and most of its other "user facilities," and the White House has requested a 6.6% increase in the BES budget to $1.8 billion. Another candidate for a trim might be the biological and environmental research (BER) program, which supports, among other things, DOE's work on advanced biofuels and climate research. The White House has requested a 2% increase for BER, to $625 million.

House appropriators would also cut funding for ARPA-E from its current level of $275 million to $200 million. In contrast, the White House has requested a boost to $350 million. In the past, House Republicans have said that they think the agency does development work that should be paid for by private industry. The Senate has shown more support for the agency and has reversed similar cuts in previous years. For example, last year House appropriators called for cutting the ARPA-E budget to $100 million. That cut was more than reversed after negotiations with the Senate.