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Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz at the Idaho National Laboratory last year.

Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz at the Idaho National Laboratory last year.

Idaho National Laboratory/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Moniz defends DOE budget at House hearings

Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz went committee-hopping this week, defending President Barack Obama’s 2016 budget request for the Department of Energy (DOE) before two panels in the U.S. House of Representatives. And although some lawmakers worried that DOE’s request tilts too far toward applied research in its science programs, their grilling of Moniz on science was relatively light.

On Wednesday, Moniz appeared before the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, and yesterday testified before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, and Related Agencies. Representatives mostly peppered Moniz with questions that focused on hot-button energy issues—including DOE’s role in evaluating the controversial Keystone pipeline and efforts to promote nuclear power—but the department’s science programs also saw some time in the spotlight.

A few highlights:

Applied versus basic science—At the House science committee, several Republican lawmakers complained that DOE was putting too much emphasis on applied energy research in its spending plan for the 2016 fiscal year, which begins 1 October. Representative Brian Babin (R–TX) compared the whopping 42%, $809 million increase that DOE has requested for its Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy program, which in part funds R&D for new energy technologies, with the 5%, $272 million increase requested for the Office of Science, which funds the national labs and basic research. "Are the Office of Science's basic research programs a lower priority for this administration, when compared with these renewable programs?" he asked. Representative Randy Hultgren (R–IL), whose district includes Fermilab, later added: “There’s a problem that has been ongoing with this administration’s choice to value applied R&D over basic scientific research.” But Moniz pushed back, saying the 5% boost for basic science would “fully support” needed programs, and defended the applied programs. “We think we have to work across the entire innovation chain,” he said.

Fusion research cuts—Representative Don Beyer (D–VA), a new member of the House, asked about the reasoning behind a requested cut in DOE’s fusion program budget, which would decrease by 10% under the request—the only loser in the Office of Science. (Last year, the House rejected a similar proposal for a cut in DOE’s fusion budget, which is increasingly dedicated to the ITER fusion project under construction in France, forcing cuts in domestic projects.) Franklin Orr, DOE’s under secretary for science and energy, suggested the trim was part of a long-term approach to achieving fusion power. “It’s a tough enough problem that a measured approach is appropriate,” he said, without addressing specifics. (Moniz has recused himself from fusion funding issues, in part because proposed cuts have targeted a DOE-funded fusion project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology [MIT], where he used to work. The MIT project is now scheduled to close within a year or two.)

Exascale computing—At the appropriations panel hearing, Representative Mike Honda (D–CA), whose district is located in Silicon Valley, asked about DOE’s efforts to achieve exascale computing—computers that can perform a billion billion calculations per second—calling it the “next technological leap.” DOE has requested a 15%, $80 million increase for its Advanced Scientific Computing Research program—the largest boost in the Office of Science—to help accelerate the effort, which Moniz said could bear fruit as early as 2022 or 2023. But he noted several challenges, including the whopping energy consumption of exascale computers and the massive amount of data they generate.

Moniz’s appearances this week concluded the first major round of hearings on the DOE request; earlier this month he also appeared before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources and the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Power. The Senate appropriations panel has yet to schedule its DOE hearing. The House and Senate will soon begin the work of deciding how much of the DOE request will become reality—and what will get left on the cutting room floor. That process isn’t expected to be complete until late this year.