APS News

Dresselhaus Reflects on Brief but Productive Term at DOE

Editor's Note: Mildred Dresselhaus, an MIT professor who served as APS president in 1984, became Director of the Office of Science at the Department of Energy in August 2000. She stepped down from office in January upon the inauguration of President Bush and returned to teaching and research at MIT.

Q What do you see as the primary policy issue currently facing the DOE?

A The DOE budget has basically been decreasing for the last 10 years (see The Back Page, APS News, October 2000). Over the last decade, an increasing fraction of the Office of Science budget has gone into the design, construction and operation of large facilities. With level budgets, the support for small group research has been seriously eroded. That is obviously not addressing national needs in terms of being among the world's leaders in the scientific fields represented by DOE. To turn around the declining budgets of the last decade, we need annual increases on the order of 15%. This past year, we managed to achieve a reasonably strong budget, the best in about 10 years. But once again, the lion's share of the funding went to facilities. Overall, DOE has done a very good job in providing research facilities to the nation.

We have a number of facilities that are under-utilized because funding has seriously limited operating time, even though the demand is there on the part of the research community. So the US is not reaping the full potential benefits of their excellent research facilities. More effective utilization of the most active facilities is critically needed. Even though we should be putting more money into research to maintain some kind of balance between research and facilities, the pressing nature of the facilities and the investment required to construct and operate them is a factor that works in favor of getting more funds invested into facilities. We need to turn these trends around before the consequences of this under-investment in the research itself become more damaging and widespread.

Q Bearing in mind that nobody can predict the future, what would you like to see happen in the DOE in the coming year?

A I would like to see a continuation of the course we started, namely, maintaining funding for the construction and operation of DOE facilities, but also expanding funding for the research component substantially. Sustained increased funding for the next few years is needed for the Office of Science to provide our unique contribution to the team effort in interdisciplinary research - such as in the nanotechnology initiative - and in the development of important new state-of-the-art instruments and user facilities for this area of opportunity. Particularly timely are the special opportunities now available for research in the US in high energy and nuclear physics, because of the new facilities now coming online. Research funding is needed here. We need to regain lost ground, after 10 years of constant budgets and receding amounts of research funding. The Office of Science received a great deal of support from the research community in getting that message across, including support from many APS members. That kind of input is essential, because it communicates to Congress what is important to researchers, as well as what is not as important.

Q You maintain that the DOE facilities play an important role in education, particularly in providing hands-on training for budding young scientists. Are there any recent initiatives in this area?

A The DOE for many years has had a very small education program, in which undergraduates visit the labs in the summer. In recent years that program has focused heavily on women and minorities, and also on community college students, bringing them to the national labs for a summer of hands-on training. Many of them opt to go to a four-year college afterwards. Working very closely with Rita Colwell and her staff at the NSF education division, we established a cooperative agreement between DOE and NSF which expands the former DOE program by a factor of two. This summer twice as many youngsters will be coming to the national labs to benefit from this hands-on training. The hope would be to increase that further by another factor of two the following year.

We have also built into the program an evaluation procedure, so that we can see what to focus on, where to put more resources, where we need to make changes. One new experimental aspect is an interface program to help community college students make the transition to four-year colleges. Students in community colleges often are lacking certain classroom experiences they would normally get in a four-year college, so it's difficult for those students to make the transition; their academic records show a very difficult adjustment period. So we implemented a summer program where they would come and get both classroom training and hands-on experience to close that gap.

This program is an excellent example of a new initiative that arose as a collaborative venture between NSF and DOE. It's been a useful collaboration from the perspective of both sides. The NSF has a charter to do science education. But DOE has laboratories that can be used to implement the hands-on training programs that NSF will organize and fund. It's a natural synergy.

Q How has the role of the DOE changed over the years, and how do you envision its role in the future?

A I believe that the DOE is one of the primary funding agencies of physics research. It certainly funds more physics research than any of the other agencies. In my youth, the amount of money allocated to NSF, NIH and the predecessor of the DOE was about the same. So I feel that the DOE at least historically at one time was an equal partner with these other agencies in the funding of research in the US. For whatever reason, DOE has come on harder times. This is partly a structural problem. The NSF has sort of a freewheeling independent identity. That isn't the case with DOE. Having the Office of Science buried a few administrative layers below the Secretary of Energy perhaps works against the visibility of physics in terms of funding nationwide. The advantages and disadvantages of such an administrative structure are arguable.

Balance between the sciences is very important. Unless there's enough physics being done, the progress of other fields will be impeded. The NIH budget is now about $20 billion, roughly 50% of the total federal research support, while the physical sciences comprise about 20% of the total, with the DOE accounting for only maybe half of that. The repertoire of the DOE has to be much broader than just the research that is done at the facilities. It has to mirror more of the research opportunities presently available to physics, much of which is not facility-driven. We don't want physics to just be driven by facilities, we want physics to be driven by research or ideas, with the facilities supporting that research.

Q Would you describe your experiences at the agency as positive? Was there anything in your past experience that helped prepare you for that position?

A It was a great experience. I think many people value an opportunity to serve the nation and it was an opportunity to do exactly that: serve the research community, and also serve the nation more generally. I was, myself, well established in the research world, I knew what it meant to do research, and I could understand the content of the research programs. I was also sufficiently well known that people were willing to listen to me. I found that the folks on the Hill really like science, they want explanations of what scientists are doing, what the DOE programs are about, and the potential benefits of these programs for society.

Perhaps a lot of teaching and research experience helps one to be able to present the fundamentals in a simple way. Having served on the boards of various companies helped me with that communication, too. Also, I think all the science policy work I've done over the years educated me in science policy so that I was better prepared when encountering some of these major issues in a real-world context. While it may not be necessary to always have a practicing scientist in these kinds of positions, it is a major advantage most of the time, provided the person is one who can communicate with the public, and desires to do so.

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette