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Congress sends Trump energy spending bill that includes healthy boost for science

The U.S. Congress today sent President Donald Trump a 2019 spending bill that boosts funding for the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) basic research efforts—and rejects deep cuts to the department’s applied research programs that the White House had proposed.

If Trump signs the bill into law—as many observers expect—DOE’s Office of Science would get a 5.2% spending boost, to $6.585 billion, in fiscal year 2019, which begins 1 October. In contrast, the Trump administration had proposed slashing the Office of Science budget by 13.9% to $5.39 billion.

The White House had called for an even bigger cut to applied energy research supported through DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy (EERE), a 70% whack to $696 million. Instead, the bill—which the House of Representatives approved today and the Senate passed yesterday—gives EERE a 2.5% increase to $2.379 billion. Similarly, the White House had sought to eliminate the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), which seeks to quickly translate the best ideas from DOE-funded basic research into budding technologies that can be developed further by private industry. The bill gives ARPA-E a healthy 3.7% boost to $366 million.

In a report accompanying the bill, congressional appropriators warn the administration against trying to cut or kill the EERE and ARPA-E programs. “The Department shall not use any appropriated funds to plan or execute the termination of ARPA-E,” it states. “In addition, the Department is directed to disburse funds appropriated for ARPA-E on eligible projects with a reasonable time period, consistent with past practices.” In April 2017, DOE came under fire from Congress for refusing to dispense the grant money Congress had appropriated for ARPA-E.

The report contains similar language ordering DOE “to maintain a diverse portfolio of early-, mid-, and late-stage research, development, and market transformation activities” within EERE. In its call to slash the EERE budget, the White House had said it would do so in large measure by shifting the program’s focus to early stage research alone.

In the bill, all of the Office of Science’s six research programs get a lift. The advanced scientific computing research program, which funds DOE’s supercomputing efforts, would score the biggest win, with its budget climbing 15.4% to $935 million. High energy physics would see its budget bulge by 7.9% to $980 million. Fusion energy sciences would receive a 6% increase to $564 million, including $132 million—$10 million more than last year—for the United States contribution to ITER, the enormous fusion experiment under construction near Cadarache in France.

Biological and environmental research, which funds research ranging from genomics and the development of biofuels to climate modeling, would receive a 4.8% boost to $705 million. The Office of Science’s biggest program, basic energy sciences (BES), would see its budget grow 3.6% to $2.166 billion. BES funds research in chemistry, materials sciences, condense matter physics, and related field, as well as running most of DOE’s user facilities, such as x-ray synchrotrons and neutron sources. Nuclear physics would see its budget inch up 0.9% to $690 million.

House and Senate appropriators generally split the differences in their versions of the bill. The Senate had requested $139 million less for fusion, but $45 million more for computing, $27 million more for BES, and $20 million more for nuclear physics. House appropriators had proposed spending $32 million less on biological and environmental research and $26 million more on fusion.

The budget also includes $65 million for research and development of a controversial reactor, sometimes called the Versatile Fast Neutron Source or the Versatile Fast Test Reactor, to be built at Idaho National Laboratory in Idaho Falls. DOE had requested $15 million for that work, which is still in its early stages. If completed by 2025, the new reactor would be the first that DOE has built since the 1990s.