Science and Research Deserve Long-Term Congressional Support

By Congressman Rush Holt
June 2007

Congress still has not shown a good appreciation of research and development and their importance to the general economic and social welfare of our country. From time to time, Congress has shown an appreciation for research directly related to human health.  Integral to the quality of life that Americans enjoy is the peace of mind that, should they or their loved ones be afflicted with a deadly or debilitating disease or injury, doctors will have access to the most technologically advanced techniques to improve their health. Many of these treatments were a direct result of the research and granting roles of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). From 1998 through 2003, the NIH budget was doubled from $13.7 billion to $27.1 billion, an explicit bipartisan goal in Congress that benefited from the support of Presidents Clinton and Bush.

The direct impact that quality healthcare has on our quality of life lends broad public support to increasing funding for medical research. Less obvious, but equally important to our quality of life, is the research and granting capacity of other federal research agencies. Often when a group of citizens comes to present their case for increased research on a particular human ailment, like juvenile diabetes, ALS, or lupus, I ask them where NIH will find the instrumentation, the methodology, and the fresh scientists to do the research. I then ask them to lobby just as hard for funds of the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the other federal agencies as they do for the NIH disease centers.

Because the NSF and the Department of Energy’s Office of Science (DOE-SC) work on research more basic and less narrowly focused than the NIH, the consensus to double investment in the NIH came well before our commitment to do the same for the NSF and DOE-SC.

Both NSF and DOE-SC have broad missions, including not only the basic scientific research in areas like physics, chemistry and biology, but also applied research in areas like defense, alternative energy, and telecommunications.

The research of the DOE, for example, is invaluable. In nearly all fields of science and engineering, our progress is dependent on obtaining a better understanding of the structure and behavior of complex molecules. One of the most effective ways to examine molecules and their behavior is to subject them to a high-energy beam, and then analyze how the beam is scattered by passing through a sample of the molecule. This information can be used to derive a three-dimensional movie that shows the location and movement of every atom. These beams might be intense X-rays, as generated by DOE-SC’s four synchrotron X-ray sources, or beams of highly accelerated neutrons, as generated at DOE-SC’s new Spallation Neutron Source (SNS) at Oak Ridge National Lab. The construction of SNS was completed in 2006, and the facility will take substantially more detailed measurements of materials than anything else on the planet.

Medical researchers use these beams to discover the structure of biological molecules, such as proteins and RNA. This information is crucial for the understanding of biological processes and the development of new medicines and treatments. Industrial researchers use these beams to study how materials behave under stress, and to make electronics smaller and faster. Therefore, DOE-SC facilities are used not only by academic researchers in numerous fields, but also by private corporations who rent time on the equipment. Neither the academic researchers nor the private corporations could plausibly invest in such equipment themselves. The Spallation Neutron Source, for example, cost $1.4 billion to construct. For a single application, this is an astronomically implausible expense. Collectively, this is a sound investment. In fact, Japan will soon have a Spallation Neutron Source of its own. If the United States did not lead the world in this technology, global companies that are key to our international competitiveness and job opportunities would have little choice but to move their operations overseas.

While DOE-SC’s beamlines are indispensable to American technology and medicine, they are only a small part of DOE-SC’s overall work. In fact, DOE-SC is divided into five interdisciplinary program offices: Advanced Scientific Computing Research, Basic Energy Sciences, Biological and Environmental Research, Fusion Energy Sciences, and High Energy Physics and Nuclear Physics. Like the beamlines, the computing resources developed by the Office of Science are used broadly in research and industry on questions very different from the in-house application to fusion and fuel cell simulations. Biological and environmental sciences, in particular, make significant use of the computing facilities developed and maintained by DOE-SC.

The Department of Energy’s Office of Science also works–of course–on energy science. Before coming to Congress, I served for nine years as Assistant Director of one of the DOE-SC laboratories, the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL). The primary mission of PPPL is to advance the science and technology necessary for fusion energy to become a reality. The need to develop sustainable energy sources is critical for our economy, national security, and environment and so the United States is cooperating internationally to develop ITER, an international experimental fusion facility. Our partners include the European Union, Japan, China, India, Korea, and Russia. Our participation is being managed by DOE-SC and funded through its budget.

Under the Continuing Resolution from the end of the 109th Congress, funding was kept flat for every item in the budget, including the budget of DOE-SC. A flat budget item is difficult for any recipient, as inflation means that cutbacks on expenses may be required. 

For DOE-SC, a flattening would have been particularly devastating. Dropping the new U.S. commitment to ITER would have had international repercussions, so dramatic cutbacks in other areas would have been required to honor that commitment. The newly constructed Oak Ridge SNS may not have been able to begin operation, thus losing a competitive edge to the Japanese Spallation Neutron Source. Cutbacks or closures in the DOE-SC national labs would not be easily reversed; experts who work in these agencies are highly specialized and experienced at working on one-of-a-kind pieces of research equipment and would be hard to replace after a closure, and industry clients of these facilities would have had to start moving overseas.

With this in mind, I recently worked with Representatives Ellen Tauscher and Judy Biggert and many of our colleagues to request that the House Committee on Appropriations fund DOE-SC at a level that would not require such dramatic and consequential cutbacks. The subsequent Continuing Resolution, which won quick approval by the House, reflected an appreciation for the importance that investment in DOE-SC plays in our nation’s future. The National Science Foundation faced similar dangers, as reflected in a similar letter I circulated along with Representatives Bart Gordon and Vernon Ehlers. The new Continuing Resolution fully funds NSF at the requested and house-approved FY07 rate.

There is still much more we can do in Congress to maintain our national competitiveness and quality of life by supporting science and research and development. We must remain on the path to doubling our research agencies. As demonstrated by the cutback decisions that DOE-SC would have had to make if flat-funded, it is particularly important to recognize that research and development is a long-term undertaking. That is why we must make the R&D tax credit permanent. Members and staff must also be more informed as a decision-making body. That is why I am co-founder of the active Congressional Research and Development Caucus. Congress should also reinstitute the Office of Technology Assessment, which would provide accurate and timely advice to policymakers on issues with scientific and technical components.

The research and development projects pursued by the National Science Foundation and Department of Energy Office of Science hold the potential to improve markedly our international competitiveness, economic security, environment, health, and national security. It is in our national interest to fulfill our commitment to support them in the important work that they do.

Congressman Rush Holt (D, NJ-12th) serves on the House Committee on Education and Labor, the Committee on Natural Resources, and the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. Congressman Holt is serving in his fifth term in Congress.

Congressman Rush Holt

Congressman Rush Holt