Lawmakers clashed over President Donald Trump’s request to cut funding for the Center for Functional Nanomaterials at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York, which includes a nanofabrication facility.

Brookhaven National Laboratory/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

House science committee spars over who loves the Department of Energy more

The House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology met Tuesday to hear about management and priorities at the Department of Energy (DOE), and at first blush, the hearing could not have been more bipartisan. Both Republican and Democratic members of the committee heaped praise on DOE's basic research arm, the $5.4 billion Office of Science, and DOE's 17 national laboratories. Yet there was a current of discord, as Democrats fretted that President Donald Trump’s administration has proposed cuts to much of DOE's research portfolio.

The committee heard testimony from Paul Dabbar, DOE's undersecretary for science, and Mark Menezes, DOE's undersecretary for energy. Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R–TX), assured them that the committee appreciates the importance of DOE's research efforts. DOE "is a world leader in basic science research and technological development," Smith said. "Without continued investment in basic and early stage research at DOE the U.S. will lose its global technology edge."

However, Representative Marc Veasey (D–TX) noted that in its budget proposal for fiscal 2018, which started 1 October 2017, the Trump administration called for cutting funding for research on sustainable transportation and renewable energy by 70%, research on energy efficiency by 80%, and the Office of Science by 17%. (The Washington Post reported today that the White House’s 2019 budget request, to be released 12 February, calls for cutting DOE’s renewable energy programs by 72% from current levels.

Although Congress has yet to finalize spending for the 2018 fiscal year, "I am even more concerned about what [that budget request] implies about the administration's priorities going forward," Veasey said. "We will not balance the budget by slashing research funding."

Democrats pressed Menezes and Dabbar on the wisdom of the proposed cuts, but the undersecretaries repeatedly turned away the questions on the grounds that the 2018 request was formulated before they took their jobs. Representative Mark Takano (D–CA) noted that DOE has four so-called energy innovation hubs to mount mini–Manhattan Projects to address specific energy problem and has just started a fifth. But in its 2018 budget, the Trump administration calls for eliminating all of them. "Can either one of you provide me with an explanation for why it is the administration's position to end the hubs model that has experienced so much success?" Takano asked. Menezes replied, "Well, as previously noted, we weren't involved in the budget process" for 2018.

In fact, Menezes and Dabbar expressed support for programs and facilities that the Trump administration would like to cut. Representative Paul Tonko (D–NY) noted that the Trump administration has called for eliminating the Center for Functional Nanomaterials at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York, one of five nanoscience centers. When asked whether he knew whether the center would receive funding in the 2019 request, Dabbar replied that budget negotiations are ongoing, but added that center's work is "truly cutting-edge … I can commit to you that I am passionate about what is being accomplished in nanoscience in materials at Brookhaven."

In spite of such assurances, Representative Ed Perlmutter (D–CO), argued that DOE’s long-term budget prospects look bleak. In particular, he noted, the tax cut recently signed into law may lead to more budget cuts because it is expected to add at least $1.5 trillion to the national debt over the next decade. "My fear is that after this big tax cut we just passed … your department is going to be under siege to cut like crazy," he said.

Representative Clay Higgins (R–LA) suggested that, in order to reduce the rising federal debt, cuts might be in order. "It is our duty to reduce federal spending," he said.

Organized disagreement

Committee members also clashed over a recent reorganization, announced by Secretary of Energy Rick Perry last month, that redefines the undersecretary positions held by Dabbar and Menezes. The previous leader of DOE, Ernest Moniz, had established an undersecretary for science and energy to oversee both DOE's energy and science programs and an undersecretary for management and performance, who oversaw the department's nuclear clean-up efforts and other operational functions. Perry's realignment splits responsibility for the science and energy programs, while transferring environmental management to Dabbar.

Smith praised the reorganization for bringing DOE's structure in line with the one specified in the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which established the undersecretary for science position. However, Representative Don Beyer (D–VA) noted that the law specified that the assistant secretaries who lead DOE energy technology programs should answer to the undersecretary for science. "I'm inclined to think that Secretary Moniz was much closer to the intent of the law than what the department is doing now," Beyer said.

Although the recent reorganization is meant to modernize DOE, much of the discussion of the department’s work had a vaguely backward-looking tenor. Several committee members pointed out that United States hasn't brought a new nuclear power plant online in more than 20 years—even though nuclear energy provides about 20% of the electricity in the United States. Representative Dana Rohrabacher (R–CA) noted that committee had been told in 2008 that researchers were working on the next generation of small modular reactors. "We could have done this 10 years ago," he said, "so I would hope you would take it to heart and structure your operation at [DOE] in a way that we're going to be getting a prototype built."

On the renewables side, the committee and the witnesses discussed the development of better batteries—which are key to harnessing intermittent energy sources such and wind and solar energy. However, wind energy itself came up only once, in a question from Representative Roger Marshall (R–KS). Nobody discussed solar energy, which now supplies 2% of the United States's electricity, or the impact on that industry of the Trump administration's recently announced 30% tariff on imported solar panels.

Clarification, 2/1/2018, 2:50 p.m.: The story has been changed to reflect that Rep. Clay Higgins (R-LA) was calling for cuts to federal spending to reduce the national debt and not in response to the recent tax cut.