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By Susan Ginsberg
Burton Richter, chair of the APS Physics Policy Committee, testified in late July before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy on the role that the Department of Energy's Office of Science plays in fostering basic scientific research. Richter served as APS president in 1994 and is director emeritus of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center.
Referring to the Office of Science as "the brightest star in the Department of Energy," Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) opened the hearing with a call for a stronger investment in the physical sciences, specifically for the research conducted by the Office of Science.
Alexander pointed out that the Office of Science is the nation's largest supporter of basic science research in the physical sciences and that the office is a "key sponsor of research at our universities and national laboratories- [which] perform the basic research that leads to the technologies of tomorrow and educate our next generation of scientists."
Picking up on Alexander's theme, Richter put the spotlight on the successes of the Office of Science. He listed the huge computer simulations being run at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, the impact of synchrotron light source research, the Human Genome Project and accelerator research results, as well as pointing to advances in fusion energy research and climate change research. "It is easy to spend money, but harder to spend it well," said Richter. "A close look finds that DOE's science funding has been well-spent indeed."
Richter pushed for increased funding for Office of Science research, saying that economic growth depends on science and technology advances.
"Industry relies on government-funded research for the work that will be behind the 'next big thing,' " Richter said. As the "last big thing" becomes a commodity, its production moves offshore, and therefore, said Richter, "the US economy needs the next big thing. DOE's programs in such areas as nanotechnology, quantum computing, or perhaps something that has not yet emerged clearly, may supply it."
Richter took a grim view of the current funding problems. "The present situation is bad for the nation's science, is bad for the nation's economy and is bad for the nation's security," he said.
Alexander then asked Richter what the federal government is uniquely suited to do that the private sector could not.
"High-risk research," Richter answered. Seventy-five percent of all US patents cite research that was done with government funds as part of the basis for the patent, said Richter, and "If investment is not made in this kind of high-risk research, the engine [of invention] will run out of gas."
In response to a question about the cause of the flat funding that has plagued the Office of Science for more than a decade, Richter suggested that it could be a result of misunderstandings in Congress as to which agencies fund which research. Praising Congress for passing the NSF doubling bill last year, Richter pointed out that even doubling the NSF budget would only increase physical science funding by 15%.
Richter was further questioned on what the Office of Science could do with additional funds. Richter introduced an APS white paper into the record which gives a detailed account of opportunities being missed in the Office of Science due to lack of funds. The white paper, entitled "Securing the Future for the Department of Energy's Office of Science" can be found at the APS Policy & Advocacy webpage.
Richter also mentioned the "20 Year Priority List" that should be published soon by the Office of Science.
The hearing took place on one of the last days before the August recess, on a day when the Senate Energy Policy Act was being debated on the Senate Floor. A few days after the DOE Office of Science hearing, the Senate passed a version of the Energy Policy Act virtually identical to the language passed the year before. Both the Senate version and that passed by the House include language that would authorize increases in funding for the Office of Science.
Only the Senate bill includes a provision for an additional undersecretary in the Department of Energy. This position, which has been the subject of lobbying efforts in the physical science community, would oversee the science programs at DOE and thereby give those programs higher administrative visibility.
The House has already passed its spending bill that includes the Office of Science, giving a 6.4% increase to the Office of Science.
The Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water passed a bill that gives only slight increases to the Office of Science, but the full Senate had not yet passed a final version of the bill when Congress went into recess.
Also testifying at the DOE Office of Science hearing were Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham; Hermann Grunder, director, Argonne National Laboraratory; and G. Wayne Clough, president of Georgia Institute of Technology and member of the President's Council of Advisers on Science and Technology. Ray Orbach, director of the Office of Science, was on hand to answer questions.
Full testimony from all witnesses can be found at http://energy.senate.gov/hearings/witnesslist.cfm?id=880.
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