For researchers supported by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) in Washington, D.C., a 6-month wait for a federal budget may have been worth it. DOE’s basic research wing, the Office of Science, gets a 16% boost, to $6.26 billion, in a 2018 omnibus spending bill passed by Congress this week. In contrast, last May President Donald Trump’s administration had proposed a 17% cut in its budget for the fiscal year that ends on 30 September.
“It’s amazingly good news,” says Thom Mason, vice president for laboratory operations at Battelle in Columbus and a former director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. “This is beyond anything I expected.” Battelle helps run six of the 10 DOE national labs run by the Office of Science, including Oak Ridge.
The Office of Science comprises six distinct research programs, and four would see their funding grow by double-digit percentages. The biggest winners would be advanced scientific computing research, which supports DOE’s supercomputing efforts, and fusion energy sciences, which supports effort to harness nuclear fusion as a source of energy. The computing budget would soar 25%, to $605 million, and fusion would receive a 24% increase, to $410 million. DOE’s nuclear physics program would climb by 12%, to $587 million. The biological and environmental research program, which funds work on, among other things, biofuels and climate simulation, would receive a 10% boost to $673 million. High energy physics would rise by 5%, to $768 million, and basic energy sciences, by far the biggest program, would grow by only 3.8%, to $1.745 billion. That’s a switch from previous years when legislators seemed to favor its support of basic research in chemistry, materials science, condensed matter physics, and related fields, as well as funding DOE’s x-ray synchrotrons and neutron sources.
It’s not clear why appropriators boosted the Office of Science so far beyond, say, the 4% increase they gave to the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, two other mainstays of federally funded basic research in the physical sciences. Much of the increased spending goes to construction of new facilities, and DOE may have benefited because it has several shovel-ready projects.
For example, a project to rebuild the Advanced Photon Source, an x-ray synchrotron at Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont, Illinois, would get $93 million. Argonne researchers have been itching to get started on the project, but it has largely idled while the Office of Science budget stagnated. Similarly, the new spending bill provides $36 million to upgrade the power source at the Spallation Neutron Source at Oak Ridge. “There are a lot of timely, well-vetted ideas that are champing at the bit,” Mason says.
The bonanza for science may also owe a lot to the efforts of Secretary of Energy Rick Perry, one observer says. “I know for a fact that he went to bat for science” within the Trump administration, says William Madia, vice president for the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. Mason agrees that Perry seems to have made science a priority. He notes that the Trump administration’s initial 2019 budget request called for cutting the Office of Science budget by 22%, to $4.2 billion. However, Mason notes, as soon as Congress struck a 2-year deal with the president to boost domestic and defense spending by some $300 billion, the White House reversed course and proposed holding the Office of Science budget flat. Mason says he thinks Perry likely played a role in that.
Other observers think the Office of Science benefited from its solid reputation among both Democrats and Republicans. The House of Representatives and Senate subcommittees that hold the purse strings for DOE and the Army Corps of Engineers received an additional $4 billion from the recent agreement to raise the budget caps, notes Michael Lubell, a physicist at City College of New York and a former lobbyist for the American Physical Society in Washington, D.C. They could have put the money into DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which maintains the United States’s nuclear arsenal, Lubell says, but NNSA was already well funded. Alternatively, they could have put the money into various water projects around the country, but that would be a political thicket, Lubell says.
The Office of Science was the least problematic place to park the money. “Science was the safe haven” for the extra funds, Lubell says. “It gets bipartisan buy-in.”
Don’t expect the party to last, however. The 2-year budget deal gives Congress only $5 billion more to spend in fiscal 2019 for nondefense discretionary spending than it had this year. So another 16% increase for the Office of Science budget seems highly unlikely.