Good Day at the Office (of Science)

The Department of Energy’s Office of Science comes out a big winner in the draft budget for 2009 formulated by the U.S. Congress yesterday. But a closer look shows that the 20%, $800 million increase to $4.77 billion would only make up for cuts made in last year’s budget and that one major item—the U.S. contribution to the international fusion experiment ITER to be built in Cadarache, France—would remain funded at just over half the requested amount.

To be sure, the numbers released yesterday will be welcomed by many researchers at the Office of Science’s 10 national labs. Some of those labs were rocked by last-minute cuts in DOE’s 2008 science budget that played havoc with three of the office’s six programs. In particular, last year, DOE’s fusion energy sciences program saw its budget slashed from the $428 million requested by the Administration of then-president George W. Bush to $287 million in the omnibus budget passed by Congress in December 2007—including a cut of all $149 million for the United States’s 2008 contribution to ITER.

Similarly, last year the high-energy physics program saw its budget cut from $752 million in 2007 to $688 million, a reduction that led to furloughs at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois, and the threat of layoffs there that was averted only when Congress gave the lab another $32 million last July. DOE’s basic energy sciences program, which supports research in condensed-matter physics, materials science, and related fields, received $1.27 billion last year, instead of the $1.50 billion requested, which led to major reductions in running time at its x-ray sources and other “user facilities.”

The numbers are much higher this time—and ironically, they are very close to those requested by the Bush Administration last February in its final budget. According to the draft legislation, high-energy physics would get $796 million, just $9 million shy of the requested amount. Basic energy science would get $1.572 billion, $4 million more than the Bush Administration requested.

The biological and environmental research program would do even better. It would receive $602 million, $33 million more than originally requested. The broad and multifaceted program also receives some unambiguous direction from Congress, which wants the program run as two subprograms: one focused on using biological means to produce energy and clean up the environment and the other focused on climate change. DOE’s nuclear physics and advance scientific computing programs would get $512 million and $369 million—almost exactly what the Bush Administration requested.

The only program that would come up dramatically short is fusion energy sciences, which, at $403 million, would get $90 million less than requested. All of that would come out of the U.S. contribution to ITER: DOE had requested $214 million; Congress has allotted $124 million. Luckily for ITER researchers, the price of steel has fallen precipitously in recent months, so their money may go further than expected. DOE also has $1.6 billion from the economic stimulus bill signed into law last week to play with.

ITER researchers can take solace in the fact that every congressional budget cloud has a hickory-smoked lining: The draft DOE science budget also contains 68 earmarks worth $94 million.