Democrats Highlight DOE User Facilities as Critical Tools for Supporting U.S. Technological Innovation
(Washington, DC) – Today, the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology’s Subcommittee on Energy and Environment held a hearing to examine the role the Department of Energy’s (DOE) national scientific user facilities play in enabling research that drives innovation and economic growth. Additionally, the hearing also examined some challenges and opportunities associated with user facilities planning and management.
As a central part of its National Laboratory system, DOE constructs and operates various unique and, in many cases, very large facilities that academic, government, and industrial researchers may use for both published, non-proprietary and proprietary scientific research. Because of the scale and cost, these are the type of facilities that are not available outside of the DOE labs, and many are the top-ranked of their kind in the world. The Office of Science within DOE operates facilities such as light sources, neutron sources, electron microscopes, nanoscale research centers, supercomputers, fusion reactors, particle accelerators and colliders, atmospheric measurement instruments, and molecular and genomic science labs.
Ranking Member Brad Miller (D-NC) said of the user facilities, “We get scientific capabilities that do not exist anywhere else in the private sector or academia. Academic and industry researchers are able to break new scientific ground, as well as accelerate the process for translating scientific discovery into marketable products. At user facilities federal funds support more efficient cars and trucks; more effective drugs; lighter and stronger metals; cheaper and more durable batteries; cleaner power plants; reduced reliance on foreign energy; a clearer picture of our changing climate; and even a better understanding of the origins of the universe and the nature of space and time. Perhaps most important, we get the talent and technologies that provide for stronger and more competitive high-tech and manufacturing sectors in the U.S. We get jobs.”
While there was broad agreement on both sides of the aisle on the importance of early-stage, or “basic”, research and the Office of Science user facilities, Subcommittee Democrats emphasized the need to utilize all of DOE’s resources to help the nation’s innovators be competitive, including the resources available through programs like ARPA-E and EERE. House Republicans have made numerous efforts to cut funding for such programs, under the assumption that they conduct “applied” research that industry should do on its own. Democratic Members and witnesses were quick to point out that such labels do not represent the complexity and cost of innovating in energy technologies.
“We have seen a dangerous and misguided effort in this Congress to label DOE activities beyond basic research as ‘picking winners and losers’ and ‘crowding out private investment’ for the purpose of cutting research in clean energy technologies and slashing budgets of programs like EERE and ARPA-E. This perspective assumes that technology always develops in a linear fashion, that there are no market failures or ‘valleys of death’, and that the private sector and the market has the capacity and incentive to support real innovation fully on its own. On the contrary, the testimony from this panel of experts shows the complexity and difficulty that technology developers face in moving from idea to marketable products. It is dogma, and not market reality, that dictates where we draw a line in providing government resources to help our nation’s innovators be competitive,” added Mr. Miller.
When asked about the use of labels of “basic” and “applied” research to distinguish where government support should end, Dr. Ernest Hall of GE Global Research said, “In my world that is not a distinction we use very much. We think about going from ideas to feasibility to pre-product demonstration to product development to commercialization. Where you make that distinction between basic and applied research is difficult to see. At my lab at Global Research, we are primarily working in the discovery phase which you might call basic research, but what we always have is an eye on how do we commercialize this, how do we pull in the ideas of manufacturing and design and materials availability into the process, even at the discovery phase. Technology development these days is much more complicated than just the simple description of basic and applied.”
Mr. Miller concluded his remarks by questioning the rationale of limiting the ability of government to help innovators in industry, especially when U.S. economic competitiveness is at risk. He stated, “If we truly want to make government work for the people, facilitate our domestic industrial sector’s race for global technological leadership, and bring real jobs back to the U.S. then we will drop the stale, dogmatic, and often illogical constraints that keep us from fully taking advantage of our governments resources,” said Mr. Miller. “Our economy was built on science. From achievements in the human genome to sending a man to the moon, the federal government has effectively supported a strong innovation backbone for a century of economic success. Why stop now when the stakes are so high? Why limit ourselves?”