House committee debates role of basic science at DOE

During a March 25 hearing of the House Science and Technology Committee’s Energy and Environment subcommittee, members of Congress debated about the role of basic science research at the Department of Energy.  As the committee considered initial sections of the 2010 America COMPETES Act, several members were concerned that changes to the DOE would jeopardize the basic science mission of the Office of Science.

U.S. Rep. Vernon Ehlers, R-Mich., said he was concerned that the bill specifically included “commercial application activities” as part of the Office of Science’s research mission.  While Ehlers said he recognized the importance of commercializing discoveries, he offered an amendment to define the Office of Science’s research mission around basic science.

Several members of the committee defended the bill’s mention of commercial applications.  Subcommittee Chairman Brian Baird, D-Wash., said witnesses at several committee hearings had testified about the economic importance of applying discoveries to create new products.

U.S. Rep. Judy Biggert, R-Ill., said that she supported DOE’s commercial-application activities because she is concerned about the “valley of death,” the difficult process by which basic science discoveries become marketable products.

Ehlers said he wanted to make sure the bill didn’t move the primary focus of the Office of Science away from basic science.  He said his amendment merely preserved language used in previous bills.  Further, he said, the basic-science focus does not preclude a role for the Office of Science in the application of discoveries.

But some members remained unsatisfied.  U.S. Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., said he wasn’t interested in maintaining the status quo and that the subcommittee needed to ensure that the Office of Science focus on applications.

Full committee Chairman Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., tried to bring the subcommittee together on the issue.

“We are all on the same page,” Gordon said, emphasizing that the members agreed the primary responsibility of the Office of Science should be basic science.  At Gordon’s suggestion, the committee adopted Ehlers’ amendment and committed to revisit the issue before the legislation is considered by the full committee.

Other members expressed concern that excitement over the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy, known as ARPA-E, might divert resources away basic science research in the Office of Science.

U.S. Rep. Bob Inglis, R-S.C., introduced an amendment that would have prevented budget increases at ARPA-E unless the Office of Science also received an increase during the same year.

But Gordon said much of the research done at ARPA-E is basic science and cautioned against tying the fortunes of one agency to that of another.

“We are still seeing generous growth” at the Office of Science despite funding ARPA-E’s programs, Baird said.

While Biggert expressed her support, the committee rejected Inglis’ amendment.

During the hearing, the subcommittee considered three sections of legislation that eventually will become part of the final America COMPETES bill.  The sections would reauthorize research components of the Department of Energy, including the Office of Science and ARPA-E.

Two other subcommittee hearings are expected on sections of COMPETES before the full committee considers the entire bill at the end of April.

Text of the legislation considered at the March 25 hearing is available on the House Science and Technology Committee’s Web site.  Find more information about recent hearings related to the America COMPETES Act in the April edition of ASBMB Today.

4 thoughts on “House committee debates role of basic science at DOE

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  2. Thank you for the informative examples of Congressional ebate science budgets. It’s more than just astounding. In the U.S.’s present deep trouble , when the nation urgently needs to mobilize its science and engineering talent for critical goals, that fact that Congressional leaders would continue to be spear bearers for the “linear theory” of basic research’s benefits to the nation may be a tragic punishment for the hubris of the 1950s. Forgotten is the fact that in the 1960s Vannevar Bush himself became disillusioned with the results of his “Science, the Endless Frontier” initiative to promote federally funded basic research. In 1967 Project Hindsight revealed that university research had contributed only 0.3% to a group of military breakthroughs (including satellite navigation). The implications of this major DOD retrospective study sent shock waves through the nation’s elite scientific institutions. NSF and AAA’s subsequent mad scramble to mobilize searches that would yield breakthroughs from basic research funding only came up with a few advances in medical technologies.

    Why should one have expected more? NSF ‘s peer review mandate explicitly limited control of the direction of research and specific awards to members of exclusive scientific disciplines. Not only could the money not go to anything related to practical or commercially useful goals. The prestige for basic research indirectly assigned second class status to applied research and development. The best talents were recruited into the ivory tower where it they became locked behind barriers of specialized disciplines. Instead of a magic system that would put “transformational” breakthroughs in basic research to work for society, the real transformation came in the formerly pragmatically oriented American university system. Its graduates had contributed to the greatest spurt in industrial productivity in history during World War II. In the 1960s and 70s, American universities universally adopted criteria for appointment, promotion, and tenure. This fostered growth of semi-isolated communities of peer scientists focused on peer-reviewed publications in ever-branching sub disciplines. Meanwhile, except for special fields like IT and communications, and military applications, the U.S. increasingly hemmhoraged industries it had created. The most theorized university system dazzled the world with its advanced departments and publications – while some 4000 colleges and universities lost the ability to produce enough doctors and other technical specialists for the nation’s needs.

    By 1986, the Japanese, whose research policy had been opposite to that in the U.S. temporarily had risen to temporarily exceed the U.S. in per capita GDP.

  3. The basic science should really be about making green energy, like windmills or solar panels. This is good clean co2 neutral energy, that helps our world to live longer!

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