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.

“We are all on the same page,” Gordon said, emphasizing that the members agreed that 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 from 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 still are seeing generous growth” at the Office of Science despite funding ARPA-E’s programs, Baird said.

Although 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. You can find more information about recent hearings related to the America COMPETES Act in the April edition of ASBMB Today.

Kyle M. Brown ( is an ASBMB science policy fellow.

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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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