Congressional science panel pushes for more energy research

Thursday, May 27, 2021

By: Adrian Cho

Last month, the Biden administration proposed boosting the budget for the Department of Energys (DOEs) basic research wing, the Office of Science, by 5.7% to $7.4 billion for fiscal year 2022. Members of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology think the agency, the single largest U.S. funder of the physical sciences, needs a lot more. And tomorrow the panel will unveil a bipartisan bill that would authorize spending $8.7 billion next year—and nearly $11 billion by 2026.

The Office of Science is receiving a $400 million increase from [current] levels, which would enable us to support all the of the key areas that the office covers, from quantum technology to biology,” Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm told the committee today during testimony on the president’s overall 2022 request for research at the department. The proposed increase stands in stark contrast to budgets proposed by the administration of former President Donald Trump, which repeatedly sought—unsuccessfully—ؙto slash the Office of Sciences budget by as much as 19%.

However, Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX), who chairs the House science committee, questioned whether the proposed boost would be enough to enable the office to follow through on the programs and projects it has already begun—such as the U.S. contribution to ITER, the massive international fusion reactor under construction in southern France. The Office of Science is the main U.S. builder of large scientific machines such as atom smashers, x-ray synchrotrons, and neutron sources. DOE officials have built or begun the majority of large facilities that the Office of Science set out in 2003 as part of a 20-year plan for U.S. energy research.

“I am disappointed in the level of increase, as it is unlikely to be enough to support the current needs of these facilities, research programs, and the national laboratories,” Johnson said. She warned the proposed budget could result in cuts to research programs or delays and concomitant increases in the costs of large construction projects. Despite the Trump administration’s wishes, Congress increased the Office of Science budget by 31% over the past 4 years, an average of 7% per year.

Johnson questioned whether the Biden administration’s slightly smaller proposed increase showed a lack of respect and appreciation” for the Office of Science. Absolutely not,” Granholm replied. She noted that Bidens requested budget for DOE is the biggest ever and that if Congress passes the administrations American Jobs Plan billions more dollars would flow into” DOEs 17 national laboratories. Believe me, this administration is all in on funding scientific research,” she said.

Most of the legislators’  questions at today’s hearing focused on clean energy technologies—electric cars, biofuels, wind energy—rather than basic research. However, Representative Bill Foster (D–IL), who once worked as a particle physicist at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab), encouraged Granholm to throw deep with major new investments in the sort of large science facilities and initiatives that [DOE] is uniquely positioned to propose, to lead, and to execute.” Foster worked on Fermilabs famed atom smasher, the Tevatron, which shut down in 2011, and he left the lab in the early 2000s after DOE canceled another accelerator he was helping to design.

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Paid for by Bill Foster for Congress