PoliSci: DOE's basic research gets a boost

By DEE ANN DIVIS, Senior Science and Technology Editor   |   Aug. 27, 2004 at 3:49 PM

WASHINGTON, Aug. 18 (UPI) -- In a year when nearly every government program not tied to national security is facing budget cuts, the House Appropriations Committee decided to add money to the Department of Energy's budget to boost the nation's investment in basic research.

The House added $168.2 million to President George W. Bush's request of $3.6 billion for DOE for next year. This might seem small, only a 4.7 percent increase, but White House requests for other science agencies, including NASA and the National Science Foundation, were cut -- in the case of NASA, by a whopping $1.1 billion.

DOE, through its Office of Science, is the nation's largest supporter of research in the physical sciences such as chemistry and physics. It supports efforts to develop economical fusion power and discover "dark energy" -- the possible key to why the universe is expanding.

DOE funds environmental research, work on nanotechnology, protein research and efforts to build ever more powerful supercomputers. It was DOE that first used its extraordinary computing capability to kick-start the mapping of the human genome. DOE research into tools to study the nature of matter laid the groundwork for non-invasive medical diagnostics such as magnetic resonance imaging and positron emission tomography -- the basis for MRI and PET scans.

These are the sorts of discoveries that inspired the House to up the funding.

The committee is aware, a congressional staffer told United Press International, "that physical sciences formed the foundation for a lot of breakthroughs in other science areas or engineering. (They understand) this is important research and development and that DoE is the place to fund it. ... They said, 'We've got to be sure we get some increase to science here.'"

The increase is real, said Tobin Smith, senior federal relations officer for the Association of American Universities.

"It starts to make up ground for what has been several years of flat funding. It does beat inflation," Smith told UPI.

The House gave an extra $30 million to support supercomputer research and directed at least $5 million of that be spent on software and applied mathematics. It also added $12 million to fusion research for a total of $276 million. The extra money will ensure that domestic fusion research will not be shortchanged by the United States' decision to contribute to an international fusion research collation.

"This has nothing to do with cold fusion," said Judy Franz, executive officer of the American Physical Society. "This is very, very hot fusion. This is the kind that physicists believe in and that definitely works. ... I think most people think eventually this will a major source of energy. The question is when and how."

Among other "plus ups," Congress added $13 million for nanoscience research and another $13 million-plus for DOE's various laboratories. The labs are a national resource used by agency scientists and non-agency researchers from universities and many other institutions.

The new money is not entirely about the projects, however, the staffer revealed. It also is a signal in a fight between the two halves of Congress over nuclear weapons.

President Bush asked for more money for nuclear weapons, the staffer explained, and not enough for science, in the view of the House Appropriations Committee.

"I think there is sort of a statement here that ... putting the money into science research is more important that putting into nuclear weapons," the staffer said.

Unfortunately, the spat over weapons research could delay final passage of an appropriations bill. Key to making any compromise on the weapons issue work will be New Mexico's powerful Republican senator Pete Domenici, the chairman of both the Senate subcommittee on energy and water development and the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

The two committees allocate DOE's money and then tells the agency how to spend it. It is worth noting that DOE's Los Alamos and Sandia laboratories, both involved in aspects of nuclear weapons research, are located in New Mexico.

Among the other possible, delay-causing factors is a squabble over Yucca Mountain, the nation's planned site for disposal of high-level nuclear waste. Also pending is a Senate debate over restructuring the intelligence community.

The fiscal year ends Sept. 30. With the built-in distraction of an election year it is unlikely Congress will complete its work in time to fund the government by Oct. 1, when FY 2005 begins.

There is no reason, however, to fear the government will shut down. All sources agree Congress likely will pass a continuing resolution.

For DOE, that has both pros and cons. On the one hand, a continuing resolution likely will just continue funding at this year's levels. This means DOE's Office of Science will not see the extra 4.7 percent for quite a while.

On the other hand, explained the staffer, any continuing resolution will likely be a simple bill that just allocates the money, with little instruction on how to spend it. This gives the agency much more latitude than it would normally have to tweak how it spends its money.

Correction: In last week's PoliSci column on the rising price of science journals, the title for Pat Thibodeau was incorrect. Thibodeau is the immediate past president of the Medical Library Association and associate dean for Library Services and director of the Duke University Medical Center Library.


E-mail ddivis@upi.com

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