Physical scientists offer outside-the-box idea for funding U.S. basic research

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Congressional budgetmakers would hold line on Department of Energy research

Scientists supported by the Department of Energy (DOE) likely won't be happy with Congress's version of the budget for the agency in fiscal year 2017, which begins 1 October. In February, the Obama administration proposed a 4.2% increase, to $5.572 billion, in the budget of DOE's basic research wing, the Office of Science—not counting an extra $100 million request dedicated for university research that would not be part of the usual budget process. However, yesterday both the Senate and House of Representatives appropriations subcommittees that oversee DOE released spending plans that would give the Office of Science just a 0.9% increase, to $5.4 billion. Both chambers also rejected the call for the $100 million mandatory spending on university research.

Although that increase may seem like small change, it represents a vote of confidence for the Office of Science, Senator Lamar Alexander (R–TN), chair of the Senate energy and water subcommittee, said at the Senate subcommittee markup yesterday. "The top priority is the Office of Science," Alexander said. "This is the second year that we've been able to increase funding for the Office of Science. … This puts us one step closer to doubling funding for federal basic energy research."

Details of both bills have yet to be released. However, for the third year in a row the Senate panel moved to zero out spending on the United States's contribution to ITER, the massive fusion experiment currently under construction in Cadarache, France, which has been experiencing delays and massive cost overruns. "ITER started out in 2005 with an initial cost of $1.1 billion, but we've already spent that much and the project may not be completed until 2025," Alexander said. Senator Diane Feinstein (D–CA), the top-ranked minority member on the Senate subcommittee, said that the cost to the United States, which has ballooned to at least $4 billion, threatens more than just other DOE research programs. "Continued funding of ITER doesn't just threaten our investment in domestic science, it also threatens funding for the Army Corps of Engineers, which plays a really important role in maintaining our nation's infrastructure," Feinstein said. DOE is due to report to Congress in early May whether it wants to stay in the ITER project.

House appropriators, meanwhile, took aim at DOE's Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) program, which funds applied research aimed at developing clean energy technologies. The Obama administration had requested a 40.1% increase in the EERE budget to $2.9 billion. In contrast, House appropriators would cut EERE spending by 12% to $1.8 billion. At the House markup yesterday, Representative Nita Lowey (D–NY), the top Democrat on the full appropriations committee, decried the proposed cut, arguing that clean energy sources are needed to help avoid the build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. "We cannot afford to bury our head in the sand on climate change," she said.

In contrast, House appropriators would reverse a proposed cut to DOE's fossil fuels research program. The Obama administration has proposed reducing such funding by 5% to $600 million and would have used $240 million leftover from prior years to help provide that funding. But the House energy and water subcommittee would boost spending on the fossil fuels program by 2% to $645 million—not including the leftover $240 million. "The bill rejects the budget request's proposal to reduce investment in the energy we use today," Representative Mike Simpson (R–ID), chair of the House energy and water subcommittee, said at the subcommittee's markup. Senate appropriators, meanwhile, would hold fossil fuels spending at the current level of $632 million.

Feinstein noted that the Senate bill would cut spending on nuclear nonproliferation by 6.8% to $1.81 billion—as requested by the Obama administration. Feinstein said she agreed with the cut only begrudgingly. "Work with Russia on securing materials and facilities in that country has slowed, but other threats at home and around the world remain," she said. "We should be investing more and I hope the next administration makes this a higher priority."