Source: American Institute of Physics | Mitch Ambrose | March 8, 2016

Members of a House appropriations subcommittee did not appear to oppose any major thrusts of the president’s fiscal year 2017 budget request for the Office of Science. Rather, members of both parties largely focused on longer-term efforts, expressing keen interest in the Department of Energy’s plans for upgrading user facilities, developing exascale computing capabilities, and improving technology transfer.

“If the labs are a crown jewel for the country, the Office of Science is really the keeper of the crown jewel,” observed Franklin Orr, Under Secretary for Science and Energy, in his opening statement at a March 2 House appropriations subcommittee hearing to review the budget request for the Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science. Also testifying at the hearing was Cherry Murray, the recently-confirmed director of the Office of Science.

Members appeared to share the sentiment that the national laboratories are a key asset for the nation. Furthermore, the hour-and-a-half hearing was largely devoid of sharp statements which have come to characterize many hearings in the current bitter budget environment.

Rather than questioning particular funding lines for fiscal year 2017, most members focused on the future, expressing keen interest in DOE’s plans to develop exascale computers and upgrade user facilities while still maintaining support for core research activities. Some members also encouraged DOE to facilitate further interactions between the national labs and both the private sector and the public.

Focus on facilities, eyes on exascale (and other countries)

Subcommittee vice chairman Chuck Fleischmann (R-TN), whose district includes Oak Ridge National Lab, highlighted the “hard choices” the Office of Science faces with respect to facilities upgrades in the coming years, emphasizing in his opening statement that “Your challenge is to ensure that new facilities don’t come at the expense of your research mission.”

On this subject, Orr noted in his written testimony that the fiscal year 2016 enacted appropriations for the Office of Science represents a “healthy ratio” of 42 percent for direct research, 38 percent for facility operations, and 14 percent for construction and major items of equipment. In the hearing, Orr also argued that among the research programs at DOE,

“the Office of Science I think actually has the most rigorous process for thinking about what priorities are and trying hard to balance the needs for the facilities but also to support the research communities that make use of them.”

Fleischmann and Rep. David Valadao (R-CA) asked about the status of DOE’s five x-ray light source user facilities relative to those of other countries and the plans for potentially upgrading each facility.

Murray emphasized that each of these facilities provides unique capabilities, supports thousands of users, and is oversubscribed by at least a factor of three. Although the U.S. is currently in “good shape” relative to Europe, Japan, and China—the main competitors in this arena—she stressed that the U.S. light sources require upgrades to retain their world-class status.

“Our plan is to, of course, balance research with facility construction, but we have to have world-class facilities,” Murray said, and noted that she recently charged the Basic Energy Sciences Advisory Committee with prioritizing potential upgrades and reporting back this June.

Similar themes emerged in the discussion about DOE’s pursuit of exascale computing, with both Fleischmann and Rep. Mike Honda (D-CA) expressing concern about eroding U.S. leadership in advanced computing and eagerness for details on the department’s progress towards developing an exascale computer by the mid-2020s.

Orr and Murray assured the subcommittee that exascale computing is a top departmental and national priority, highlighting the increasing importance of supercomputing, big data, and machine learning across a wide variety of problem domains and disciplines. For example, in response to subcommittee chairman Mike Simpson (R-ID) expressing some puzzlement about DOE’s involvement in biology-focused research efforts such as the BRAIN initiative, Orr argued that DOE has a“legitimate role” in supporting these efforts given its expertise in the types of computing required to understand the complex structure of the brain and analyze massive patient data sets.

Finally, no recent hearing on DOE would be complete without at least one question about ITER, the beleaguered international fusion project. This time it came from Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE), who expressed skepticism about ITER’s viability and then inquired about whether any domestic fusion experiments are showing promise.

Orr responded by noting that the U.S. has helped ITER leadership implement more rigorous project management practices and asserting that ITER still provides the best opportunity for achieving a deuterium-tritium burn, an important milestone for fusion research.

Transferring technology and “Finding Ernie”

With perhaps a tinge of jealousy, subcommittee ranking member Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-OH) remarked in her opening statement that

“Coming from an area without a national lab, as most members do, I continue to wrestle with how the labs can play a significant transformational role for organizations beyond their boundaries…”

Orr responded by outlining a series of actions DOE has recently taken to improve technology transfer between the labs and industry. These include establishing an Office of Technology Transitions in charge of a Technology Commercialization Fund and a Clean Energy Investment Center to make it easier for industry to “see more quickly into the national lab system for ideas they might want to engage upon.”

In a similar vein, Honda, whose district includes Silicon Valley, praised the newCyclotron Road program which promotes entrepreneur engagement with Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, and asked what DOE is doing to expand the program to other labs.

Orr first pointed out that this initiative represents more of a “conversation” between the private sector and the labs rather than simply transferring technology from one to the other. He then assured Honda that other lab directors are “looking over the fence”to see how the program could be implemented at their own labs.

Toward the end of the hearing, Kaptur strongly encouraged Orr and Murray to think more about how to leverage DOE’s resources to reach the general public and help inspire the next generation of scientists, arguing that DOE remains largely opaque or unknown to most citizens.

After applauding Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz’s science communication skills, she pitched the idea of a “Finding Ernie” video series (the name adapted from the popular kid’s movie “Finding Nemo”) in which Ernie, or an acceptable substitute, would be found at the labs across the country explaining concepts ranging from internal combustion engines to wind turbines.

Simpson soon chimed in, noting his admiration of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos television program. Orr then joked, “I can’t resist saying that I love the idea of all of us sitting around thinking of things for the Secretary to do,” a lighthearted moment to cap off a largely positive hearing.