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Looking Ahead: It's Time To Defend All of Scientific Research

By Martha Krebs

KrebsAs I write this, it is Thanksgiving eve here in Washington, DC. Most federal workers have just returned from a forced vacation following the battle between the Republican Congress and the White House over a framework for balancing our nation's budget by the year 2002. Although many of our colleagues in other science agencies were among those on furlough, the Department of Energy (DOE) operated on carry-over funds and the Energy and Water Development Approprations bill signed by President Clinton on November 31, 1995.

Although the budget battles over the FY1996 programs are not finished, it is a good time to reflect on them and to look forward to what the coming year may bring. The DOE spent much of 1995 fighting for its existence and caught up in the freshmen Republican members' zeal for reducing the number of cabinet agencies. In large measure, the energies of Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary and her immediate staff were absorbed in that contest, and it looks like we have survived to fight another year.

Below that grand scale, different DOE programs have been under different levels of support and attack. Our energy technology programs for efficiency and renewables have been caught up in the controversy that support for applied research is corporate welfare by another name, and look like they will be reduced by approximately 30 percent. Our atomic weapons programs with their focus on science-based stockpile stewardship and a recommitment to the three weapons laboratories have been well received and are increased above the President's request. Our massive program to repair the environmental damage at former weapons' sites faced serious scrutiny, was reduced below its request level by $300-$400 million, but also received $50 million for a peer-reviewed basic science program.

Although the general state of DOE may be interesting, I know that when physicists think about DOE, they usually think about the Office of Energy Research - the home of basic science in the DOE, the investor in major scientific user facilities that provide vital infrastructure to thousands of researchers supported by industry and other federal agencies. In our case, it's been a mixed year. Our FY 1996 request went to Congress at $2.7 billion and came back at $2.5 billion.

High energy physics has been reasonably treated, up $40 million from FY 1995 but $20 million below the original DOE request that would have honored the HEPAP recommendations. We will go forward with discussions for U.S. participation in the Large Hadron Collider, in collaboration with the National Science Foundation.

Nuclear physics was reduced $10 million below our request and continues to languish. The RHIC project was cut $5 million for budget balancing purposes only. As a result, we expect the total project costs to increase about $20 million and stretch project completion by six months to one year. As NSAC is about to deliver its long-range plan to a $325 million budget projection, Congress is giving Energy Research a discouraging message that will likely bring some tough decisions in the next few years.

More positive was the message to the Basic Energy Sciences programs where increases for operation and instrumentation at the major synchrotron and neutron scattering facilities was strongly supported. New programs will also be started for basic research that supports the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles and environmentally sound materials and chemical processes.

Our environmental programs faced some early challenges as "claptrap" science by some members of Congress, but our appropriators recognized the quality and independence of DOE's investigators in our global climate and ozone research programs. By comparison to some of the other agencies who support work in these areas, Energy Research was well treated. The irrationality of these attacks in the face of peer-reviewed programs is frustrating to everyone involved, but especially the staff of the federal science agencies. They have worked hard through different administrations with changing political perspectives to establish programs and bring scientific results forward that illuminate policy decisions, but do not reflect the political views of individual scientists. The cheap shot attacks by politicians and scientists who have not been subject to peer review in these fields are deeply distasteful to me.

Another problematic action by Congress is the dramatic reduction of the fusion energy program. Reduced by one-third from $363 million to $244 million, the program must be fundamentally restructured away from a time-driven effort. What the character and scope of the new program should be is a tremendous challenge to the fusion and plasma scientists. Personally I think the Congressional action was unwise, foolish and tragic in the face of what we know will be the energy requirements of the U.S. and the world by the middle of the next century. It is also a tragedy for many individuals who have had a profound commitment to making fusion energy happen. A cut of this size, a shift in direction this sudden, will leave human and scientific wreckage; there is no avoiding it. In spite of this, Congress has made a clear statement and its FY 1996 funding level is based on the expectation that the restructured fusion science program will cost significantly less in the future. This is not the time for denial, delay or recrimination. It is a time for imagination.

So what do we make of all this? What can we expect next year? What should we do? As a member of President Clinton's administration, I believe that we have made a strong commitment to federal investments in science and technology that should both drive the economy and protect the environment. These investments must also sustain our leadership in world-class science, math and engineering based on peer review. Having said this, we face a period where the federal science investment is not likely to grow with inflation. This is in spite of good words from the Republican Congressional leadership. The budget agreement between Congress and the President will put more pressure on the discretionary parts of the Federal budget.

There is no way that the science budgets will not be more deeply scrutinized than they already have been by both Congress and the Administration. The NSF and the National Institute of Health will undoubtedly receive favored treatment, but growth will be harder and harder to come by. The basic research programs in DOE, NASA, and the Department of Defense will continue to be squeezed, and defending the important benefits received from these investments must receive the attention of professional societies, not just divisions representing subfields. Funding that leaves programs like fusion will not go to other areas of science. Funding that leaves national laboratories will not go to other areas of science. Funding cut from applied research will not be added to basic science.

This is a time for defending all of science, not particular fields and institutions. This is a time for articulating the benefits our nation has received from its investments in science and scientists. It is a time for speaking to all of our public representatives, federal and local, and especially when they are not based in Washington, DC. This is a long-term job that will not take place in D.C., nor will it be finished once we know the final determination for the budget for FY 1997.

Martha Krebs is the Assistant Secretary of Energy Research, Office of Energy Research, at the U.S. Department of Energy.

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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin