May 2010

Committee Considers Role of Basic Science at DOE


NFTH---DOEDuring a March 25 hearing of the House Science and Technology Committee’s energy and environment subcommittee, members of Congress debated 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 J. 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. Although 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 and that 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 R. 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.


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5/4/2010--I am an old guy who was fortunate enough to receive very generous support for research in molecular and cellular biology from the DOE, up until 1991. One of the great things about that was the fact that nobody ever asked about the future applications of the research; we hoped that some good would come from the results we obtained but we weren't asked about "practical values" before we started the work. Our work DID result in valuable applications to the health and welfare of the world; it seems obvious that this is the expected result of basic research. Robert B. Painter, Professor of Microbiology, Emeritus Univ. of California, San Fracisco



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