Category Archives: Rethinking What Research Government Should Fund

Fall 1999



Photo: National Science Foundation

Drilling a Hole in the Ocean

Project Mohole represented, as one historian described it, the earth sciences’ answer to the space program. The project involved a highly ambitious attempt to retrieve a sample of material from the Earth’s mantle by drilling a hole through the crust to the Mohorovicic Discontinuity, or Moho. Such a sample, it was hoped, would provide new information on the Earth’s age, makeup, and internal processes, as well as evidence bearing on the then still controversial theory of continental drift. The plan was to drill through to the Moho through the seafloor at points where the Earth’s crust is thinnest.

Only the first phase of the projected three-phase program was completed. During that phase, the converted Navy barge pictured here conducted drilling trials off Guadalupe Island in the spring of 1961 and in the process broke existing drilling depth records by a wide margin. Although Project Mohole failed in its intended purpose of obtaining a sample of the Earth’s mantle, it did demonstrate that deep ocean drilling is a viable means of obtaining geological samples.


Fusion program still off track

Since publication of our article, “Fusion Research with a Future” (Issues, Summer 1997), the Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Fusion Energy Science (OFES) program has undergone some change. Congress has mandated U.S. withdrawal from the $10-billion-plus International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) tokamak project; the program has been broadened to include a significant basic science element; and the program has and is undergoing a number of reviews. One review by a Secretary of Energy Advisory Board (SEAB) subcommittee recommends major changes in fusion program management but does not mention the critical change tht we recommended of connecting the fusion program to its eventual marketplace.

Our experience and that of so many others is that one cannot do high-probability-of-success applied R & D without a close connection with end-users and an understanding of the marketplace, including alternative technologies as they exist today and are likely to evolve. The fusion program has never had serious connections with the electric utilities, nor does the fusion program have a real understanding of the commercial electric power generation marketplace.

A closer look at the current OFES budget allocation and plans indicates that although the United States has abandoned ITER, not much else has really changed. The primary OFES program focus is still on deuterium-tritium (DT) fusion in toroidal (donut-shaped) plasma confinement systems. DT fusion produces copious quantities of neutrons, which induce large amounts of radioactivity. Although it can be argued that radioactivity from fusion is less noxious than that from fission, it is not clear that the public would make that distinction.

If at some future date a U.S. electric power generating entity were willing to build a plant using technology that produces radioactivity, it could chose the fission option, which is a well-developed, commercial technology. For radioactive fusion to supplant fission, it will have to be significantly better, many would say on the order of 20 percent better in cost. The inherent nature of DT fusion will always require a physically large facility with expensive surrounding structures, resulting in high capital costs. It’s simple geometry. An inherently large, complex DT fusion “firebox” will never come close to the cost of a relatively compact, simple fission firebox. Our experience with the design of ITER illustrated that reality.

Thus, the fusion research program has to identify and develop different approaches, ones that have a chance of being attractive in the commercial marketplace and that will probably be based on low- or zero-neutron-generating fuel cycles. Thankfully, fusion fuel cycles that do not involve neutron emissions exist, but they will likely involve different regimes of plasma physics than are currently being pursued. Unfortunately, DOE and its researchers are still a long way from making the program changes necessary to move in that direction.




From the Hill

From the Hill

Congress split on FY 2000 funding for R&D

As the September 30 deadline loomed for approval of all FY 2000 appropriations bills, Congress was deeply split on R&D funding, with the House approving significant cuts and the Senate favoring spending increases. Because of severe disagreements between the president and Congress, several appropriations bills were expected to be vetoed. A repeat of last year’s budget process was expected, with all unsigned bills being merged into a massive omnibus bill.

Congress has insisted on adhering this year to strict budget caps on discretionary spending that were imposed when the federal budget was running an annual deficit. This has forced cuts in many programs. The House would increase defense spending substantially while cutting R&D funding as well as funding for several key White House programs. The Senate, which has made R&D spending a priority, would increase R&D spending while providing less money for defense.

Although neither chamber had approved all appropriations bills by mid-September, the House thus far had cut nondefense R&D by 5.1 percent, or $1.1 billion from FY 1999 levels. Especially hard hit would be R&D spending in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the Departments of Commerce and Energy. R&D spending would decline by 2.4 percent in the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Basic research in agencies whose budgets the House has approved would be up by 2.2 percent. Among those agencies receiving increases would be the Department of Defense (DOD) (up 3.1 percent), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) (up 2.3 percent), and NASA (up 7.1 percent). NSF’s basic research budget would decline by 0.3 percent to $2.3 billion. The Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) basic research would stay nearly level at $2.2 billion.

Current status

What follows are highlights of the appropriations for key R&D agencies. The summary focuses primarily on the House, which has approved more bills concerning key R&D agencies than has the Senate.

The NASA budget would decline steeply in the House plan to $12.7 billion, a cut of $1 billion or 7.4 percent. NASA’s Science, Aeronautics, and Technology account, which funds most of NASA’s R&D, would decline 12 percent to $5 billion because of deep cuts in the Earth Science and Space Science programs. The House would cancel several missions and dramatically reduce planning and development funds for future missions in the Discovery and Explorer space science programs. The House would also reduce supporting research and technology funds and mission support funds, which could affect all NASA programs.

The House would cut the NSF budget by 2 percent to $3.6 billion. Most of the research directorates would receive level funding; NSF had requested increases of between 2 and 5 percent. Cuts in facilities funding would result in a 2.7 percent decline in total NSF R&D. The House would also dramatically scale back first-year funding for the administration’s proposed Information Technology for the Twenty-First Century (IT2) initiative. NSF requested $146 million for its role in IT2, but the House would provide only $35 million. The new Biocomplexity initiative would receive $35 million, less than the president’s $50 million request.

The House would provide $844 million for Commerce Department R&D, a reduction of $231 million or 21.5 percent. The House would eliminate the Advanced Technology Program (ATP) and cut most R&D programs in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In contrast, the Senate would provide generous increases for most Commerce R&D programs, including ATP, for a 15.8 percent increase in total Commerce R&D to $1.2 billion.

In the wake of congressional anger over allegations of security breaches and mismanagement at DOE weapons labs, the House would impose restrictions by withholding $1 billion until DOE is restructured and would also cut funding for R&D programs. DOE’s R&D would total $6.8 billion, 2.9 percent less than in FY 1999. The Stockpile Stewardship program, which funds most of the R&D performed at the weapons labs, would receive $2 billion, a reduction of 6 percent after several years of large increases. The DOE Science account, which funds research on physics, fusion, and energy sciences, would receive $2.6 billion, a cut of 2.8 percent. The House would deny the requested $70 million for DOE’s contribution to the IT2 initiative and would also trim the request for the Spallation Neutron Source from $214 million to $68 million. R&D on solar and renewable energy technologies would decrease by 7.7 percent. The Senate would provide increases for most DOE programs, without restrictions, for a total R&D appropriation of $7.3 billion, an increase of 4.9 percent.

The House would boost DOD funding of basic and applied research above both the president’s request and the FY 1999 funding level. DOD’s basic research would total $1.1 billion, up 3.1 percent, and applied research would total $3.4 billion, up more than 7 percent. The House would provide $60 million for DOD’s role in the IT2 initiative, down from a requested $100 million. The House would also create a separate $250 million appropriation for medical R&D, including $175 million for breast cancer research and $75 million for prostate cancer research. The Senate would provide similar increases for DOD basic, applied, and medical research accounts.

The USDA would receive $1.6 billion for R&D, a cut of 2.1 percent. The House would block a new, nonappropriated, competitive research grants program from spending a planned $120 million in FY 2000. The Senate would allow the release of $50 million for this program. An existing competitive grants program, the National Research Initiative, would be cut 11.6 percent to $105 million. Congressionally designated Special Research Grants, however, would receive $63 million, $8 million more than this year and $58 million more than USDA requested. The Senate would be more generous with an appropriation of $1.7 billion for total USDA R&D, up 3.8 percent.

The Environmental Protection Agency would receive $643 million for its R&D from the House, a decline of 3.5 percent, but this would be the same amount that the agency requested.

Much of the Department of Transportation (DOT) budget is exempt from the budget caps because of two new categories of spending created last year for transportation programs. Spending on these categories is automatically augmented by increased gas tax revenues. As a result, the House would allow DOT’s R&D to increase 8.9 percent to $656 million in FY 2000, with substantial increases for highway, aviation, and transit R&D. The Senate would provide similar amounts.

GOP bills on database protection clash

The debate over protecting proprietary information in electronic databases took a new twist when Rep. Tom Bliley (R-Va.), chairman of the House Commerce Committee, proposed a bill that clashes with a bill sponsored by his GOP colleague, Rep. Howard Coble (R-N.C.). Coble’s bill passed the House twice during 1998 but was dropped because of severe criticism from the science community. Coble introduced a revised version of the bill, H.R. 354, earlier this year. (“Controversial database protection bill reintroduced,” Issues, Summer 1999.)

Bliley’s bill, H.R. 1858, would allow the free use of information from online databases but not the use of the database itself, which would be protected by virtue of its unique design and compilation of data. The bill adheres to legal precedents in copyright law by not protecting the duplication of “any individual idea, fact, procedure, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery.” It allows the duplication and dissemination of a database if used for news reporting, law enforcement and intelligence, or research. It extends protection only to databases created after its enactment; H.R. 354 would protect databases in existence for less than 15 years.

H.R. 1858 proponents argue that it is more narrowly focused than the Coble bill. “Any type of information that is currently provided on the Internet could be jeopardized by an overly broad statute or one that does not adequately define critical terms,” argued Matthew Rightmire, director of business development for Yahoo! Inc., during a June 15 hearing on H.R. 1858. At the same hearing, Phyllis Schlafly, president of Eagle Forum, said H.R. 1858 has four major advantages over the Coble bill: It provides the right to extract essential data, does not create new federal penalties for violations, does not protect those who misuse data, and treats database protection as a commercial issue rather than an intellectual property issue.

Database protection as a commercial rather than an intellectual property issue underlies the premises of both bills. The Coble bill views database piracy not only as a threat to the market share of the original providers but also as a theft of original work. Thus, H.R. 354 includes criminal as well as civil penalties for violations. The Bliley bill, on the other hand, sees databases only as a compilation of facts, so that copying a database infringes only on the commercial success of the providers. It provides only civil penalties for violations. H.R. 1858 gives the Federal Trade Commission the authority to determine which violations would be governed under fair competition statutes.

Opponents of the Bliley bill believe that it is too specific and does not adequately protect database owners. H.R. 1858, they point out, protects databases only as whole entities. They argue that the theft and copying of parts of a database would be enough to inflict substantial commercial damage on the owner. They also maintain that pirates could add just a small amount of data to a duplicated database to exempt themselves from prosecution. And, they say, because database owners will have to provide free use of data for scientific, research, and educational purposes, they may not be able to earn enough revenue to maintain these databasse.

Congress set to create separate agency to run DOE weapons labs

In an attempt to bolster security at the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) nuclear weapons labs, Congress, as of mid-September, was on the verge of passing a bill that would create a semiautonomous agency within DOE to run the labs. The White House is not happy with the bill (S. 1059) but may find it difficult to veto because it also includes increased funding for popular military services programs, including money for combat readiness and training, pay raises, and health care.

The legislation comes in the wake of reports of Chinese espionage at the labs as well as scathing criticism from the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, chaired by former Senator Warren Rudman. An advisory board report, Science at its Best, Security at its Worst, concluded that DOE had failed in countering security threats and that it is a “dysfunctional bureaucracy that has proven it is incapable of reforming itself.” The report recommended setting up either a semiautonomous or wholly autonomous agency within DOE.

The bill would establish a National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) responsible for nuclear weapons development, naval nuclear propulsion, defense nuclear nonproliferation, and fissile material disposition. NNSA would be headed by an administrator/undersecretary for nuclear security who would be subject to “the authority, direction, and control” of the secretary of energy. The administrator would have authority over agency-specific policies, the agency’s budget, and personnel, legislative, and public affairs.

The Clinton administration fears that the new agency would be too insular, with vague accountability to the secretary of energy, no clear links to nonweapons activities within DOE, and no responsibility for environmental, health, and safety issues. Echoing the administration’s concerns, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) issued a statement outlining a Congressional Research Service (CRS) memorandum that raises questions about the reorganization. The memorandum states that “the Department’s staff offices will be unable to have authority, direction, or control over any officer and employee of the [new] Administration.” It also says that the NNSA would not be directly subject to DOE’s general counsel, inspector general, and chief financial officer. Other criticism has come from 46 state attorneys general, who sent a letter to Congress in early September expressing concern that the reorganization would undercut a 1992 law that gives the states regulatory control over DOE’s hazardous waste management and cleanup activities.

OMB revises proposed rule on release of research data

Attempting to meet objections from the science community, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has revised a proposed rule governing the release of research data. But the science community still believes that the rule could compromise sensitive data and hinder research progress.

OMB proposed the rule after Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) inserted a request in last year’s omnibus appropriations bill that OMB amend its Circular A-110 rule to require that all data produced through funding from a federal agency be made available through procedures established under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Scientific organizations are not necessarily opposed to the release of data but don’t want it to be done under what they consider FOIA’s ambiguous rules. OMB is now asking for comments on the revisions to the proposed rule, seeking to clarify issues that were problematic in the first proposal.

Originally, the proposed rule allowed the public to request access to “all data” but did not clearly define the phrase. Letter writers pointed out that “data” could include phone logs, physical equipment, financial records, private medical information, and proprietary information. OMB now defines data as “the recorded factual material commonly accepted in the scientific community as necessary to validate research findings, but not any of the following: preliminary analyses, drafts of scientific papers, plans for future research, peer reviews, or communications with colleagues. This ‘recorded’ material excludes physical objects (e.g., laboratory samples).” Proprietary trade secrets and private information such as medical files would also be excluded.

The original proposal also did not clearly define the term “published,” leading to concerns that scientists might be forced to release data before a research project was concluded. OMB has now defined “published” as “either when (A) research findings are published in a peer-reviewed scientific or technical journal, or (B) a Federal agency publicly and officially cites the research findings in support of an agency action.”

Perhaps the most significant change concerns OMB’s interpretation of what constitutes a federal regulation. Initially, OMB said that only data “used by the Federal Government in developing policy or rules” would be available through FOIA. But commentators pointed out that this could lead to a situation in which any action taken by an agency that was influenced by a research study would place that study under scrutiny. OMB has now narrowed the wording to include only data “used by the Federal Government in developing a regulation.” Further, OMB said that the regulation must meet a $100 million impact threshold, a precedent set by other laws.

Proponents of the rule, which include many politically conservative organizations, were not pleased by the revisions. They have long argued for the broadest possible release of data, so that the scientific process can be scrutinized as completely as possible. A U.S. Chamber of Commerce representative, quoted in Science magazine, called the new OMB interpretation “unacceptable.”

The Association of American Universities (AAU), in its response to the revisions, has not changed its view that the Shelby amendment is “misguided and represents bad policy.” AAU asked that the economic impact threshold be raised to $500 million and that the new proposal include only future research, not already completed studies.

Big boost in information technology spending sought

A bill introduced Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner, Jr. (R-Wisc.), chairman of the House Science Committee, would nearly double, to $4.8 billion, federal funding for research in information technology (IT) and related activities over the next five years for six agencies under the committee’s jurisdiction. The bill, H.R. 2086, would go significantly beyond the Clinton administration’s IT2 information technology initiative.

In addition to what is now being spent on IT, the Sensenbrenner bill would increase basic research by $60 million in FY 2000 and 2001, $75 million in FY 2002 and 2003, and $80 million in FY 2004. It also authorizes $95 million for providing internships in IT companies for college students and $385 million for terascale computing hardware. The bill would make permanent the R&D tax credit, extend funding for the Next Generation Internet program until 2004, and require the National Science Foundation (NSF) to review and report on the types of and availability of encryption products in other countries.

If the bill is eventually approved, the biggest winner would be NSF, which would receive more than half of the total authorizations of the bill during its five-year span. Although FY 2000 funding levels in H.R. 2086 are lower than the president’s budget request–$445 million versus $460 million–the funding increases in later years are dramatic. NSF’s funding for IT research would increase by more than $100 million to $571 million in 2004 for a total authorization of $2.5 billion. NASA would also benefit, with proposed authorizations totaling $1.03 billion over five years.

The administration’s IT2 program allocates $228 million for basic and applied IT R&D for FY 2000; $123 million for multidisciplinary applications of IT; and $15 million for social, economic, and workforce implications for IT. All told, it allocates an additional $366 million to existing IT programs.

“From the Hill” is prepared by the Center for Science, Technology, and Congress at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C., and is based on articles from the center’s bulletin Science & Technology in Congress.