U.S. Energy Research 2011 Funding Outlook Decent as ARPA-E Cashes In

The Senate spending panel that oversees science at the Department of Energy (DOE) has released a few details about a draft 2011 appropriations bill that passed out of subcommittee yesterday. The big winner appears to be DOE's new blue-sky research shop, the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E). The numbers for the Office of Science, the largest source of federal funds for basic research in the physical sciences, look good so far, says the American Physical Society's Michael Lubell. But he doesn't expect them to hold up.

In February, President Barack Obama requested a 3.4% increase in 2011 for DOE science programs, to $5.12 billion. Last week, a House of Representatives panel cut that request to $4.90 billion, which would hold the office to its 2010 level. Yesterday, the comparable Senate subcommittee approved $5.01 billion for the office as part of an overall $35 billion appropriation for DOE and the Army Corps of Engineers. At the same time, the panel gave ARPA-E $200 million.

Although that's less than the president's request for $300 million, the money would provide the agency with its first regular operating budget. (It received a one-time injection of $400 million in last year's stimulus package.) The House panel allocated $220 million. Tomorrow, the bill will go before the full spending committee; approval by the full Senate, however, could be delayed until after the November elections.

Lubell says a number of factors could lead to lower research numbers in the final bill.

First, the Senate energy and water appropriations subcommittee had $300 million more to play with than its House counterpart. That difference will have to be reconciled before the bill becomes law. If the two bodies follow tradition and split the difference, the Senate number would shrink by $150 million. That cut would have to come from somewhere; science would probably be one of the targets. In addition, Lubell expects the Senate to add some water projects not in the subcommittee's bill. That could also mean less cash for DOE. And Senator Patty Murray (D–WA) hopes to add money for the nuclear waste site at Yucca mountain, which Obama zeroed out in his 2011 budget request. That, too, could come out of the hide of science.

Overall, Lubell estimates that the final bill will provide a $50 million bump over the Office of Science's 2010 budget. This year's funding was "pretty good," he says, so researchers "would probably get by" with a modest increase.

The ARPA-E funding is welcome news to its supporters. "It's a really important and positive step," says Rafe Pomerance, senior fellow at Clean Air-Cool Planet, a Portsmouth, New Hampshire, nonprofit that lobbied successfully for the agency to be created in 2007–although the Bush Administration opposed funding it.