Energy

U.S. Department of Energy research gets a surprise boost in inflation-reduction bill | Science

The U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) science programs are poised to get a windfall of $1.5 billion over 5 years in the massive climate and health care bill awaiting final passage later this week by the House of Representatives. The money is primarily for the construction of new facilities and major upgrades funded by DOE’s $7.5 billion Office of Science, although the bill does not call out specific projects.

“This is a nice little bump for the science budget,” says Bill Madia, former director of two DOE national laboratories. “I’m surprised science got anything in this bill.” Leland Cogliani of Lewis-Burke Associates, a science lobbying firm, cautions that the extra money is really only a down payment for many projects in the pipeline. “It may sound like a lot of money, but $1.5 billion doesn’t really go very far,” he says.

The new legislation, dubbed the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) of 2022, is a much-streamlined version of a $3.2 trillion blueprint for sweeping social, environmental, and economic reforms proposed last year by President Joe Biden. That ambitious agenda, called the Build Back Better Act, included nearly $13 billion for DOE’s Office of Science and tens of billions of dollars for other federal research agencies.

That figure was the high-water mark for the national labs in legislation that went through many iterations and names. Even so, IRA retains a sizeable investment in DOE lab infrastructure while removing funding for the other research agencies.

IRA, which offsets some $370 billion in additional spending with revenue from an array of taxes, was the result of protracted negotiations between Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D–NY) and Senator Joe Manchin (D–WV). Manchin’s opposition to climate and spending provisions in Biden’s original plan and a subsequent $2.2-trillion version was sufficient to kill both bills. But Manchin had a change of heart that allowed the Democrats to prevail in the Senate on 7 August in a party-line vote of 50 to 50, with Vice President Kamala Harris breaking the tie.

Despite his concern over what his fellow Democrats hoped to spend, Manchin repeatedly sought to boost federal support for DOE’s network of 17 national labs, including the National Energy Technology Laboratory in his home state. (That lab is funded through DOE’s Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management, which would receive $150 million over 5 years.) For example, legislation approved in December 2021 by the Senate panel he chairs would have given DOE’s science office nearly $5 billion, some $4 billion more than the slimmed down version of Build Back Better that the House had passed a month earlier.

The House’s original version of Build Back Better spelled out how much DOE should spend on each of dozens of specific projects. In contrast, IRA, which the House is expected to approve on Friday without any changes, doesn’t name which projects should be funded. It simply divides the $1.5 billion among the office’s seven research programs.

For example, high-energy physics receives an additional $304 million, and nuclear physics gets $217 million more. Advanced scientific computing research, which includes DOE’s supercomputers, would get an extra $164 million, and fusion energy sciences would receive a boost of $280 million. Basic energy sciences—which funds research in chemistry, condensed matter physics, and material sciences and runs DOE’s x-ray and neutron sources—would grow by $295 million.

The biggest winner would be the DOE isotope R&D and production program, which last year became a separate program within the Office of Science. Although it has an annual budget of just $90 million, it would receive an additional $158 million over the next 5 years. The program provides a broad variety of rare isotopes used by researchers in fields ranging from archeology to quantum physics, as well as in industrial processes and for national security.

An Office of Science spokesperson declined to comment on how DOE plans to allocate the windfall, noting that the legislation has not been finalized. But it’s not hard to guess where much of the money is headed.

High-energy physicists at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois—DOE’s only high-energy physics lab—are gearing up to build a massive neutrino experiment. Its price tag has doubled to $3 billion, so it could certainly use the help. Similarly, the extra money could kick-start a proposed Electron-Ion Collider to be built at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York—one of DOE’s two nuclear physics labs—at a cost of between $1.7 billion and $2.8 billion.

Madia applauds the decision by Congress to let agency officials make the decision rather than having legislators earmark specific projects. “It’s a very efficient way to advance the program,” he says, adding that it frees DOE to be selective and not “fund every idea out there.” Cogliani predicts DOE will look for projects in which the additional funding would “accelerate construction schedules or reduce costs and risks.”

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