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

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

An ambitious climate, health care, and tax reform bill passed by the U.S. Congress also contains a 5-year, $2 billion windfall for the national laboratories run by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). Most of the money—$1.5 billion—will go to DOE’s science office for new facilities and upgrades at the 10 national labs it oversees, which carry out basic research in an array of fields.

“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 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 spending, part of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) of 2022, is much less than President Joe Biden had envisioned last year in proposing a $3.2 trillion blueprint for sweeping social, environmental, and economic reforms. 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.

Those numbers shrank as the legislation went through many iterations and names. But the IRA still delivers a sizable investment in DOE lab infrastructure despite the removal of funding for the other research agencies.

The 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 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, with Vice President Kamala Harris breaking a 50-50 tie. On 12 August, the House of Representatives approved the measure on a party-line vote of 220 to 207, and Biden signed it into law on 16 August.

quotation mark

I’m surprised science got anything in this bill.

  • Bill Madia
  • former Department of Energy lab director

Despite his concerns about additional federal spending, Manchin has repeatedly sought to boost 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 in the IRA would receive $150 million over 5 years.

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, the IRA simply divides the $1.5 billion among the office’s seven research programs and leaves other decisions to DOE officials, an approach Madia applauds because it enables DOE to be selective.

“The specific spend plan is being finalized internally in the Office of Science,” says Harriet Kung, the agency’s deputy director for science programs. But it’s not hard to guess where much of the money is likely 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, at a cost of between $1.7 billion and $2.8 billion.

DOE will prioritize “signature facility projects” to advance schedules and reduce risks, Kung says, and will favor projects nearing completion. It will also consult with the White House and Congress, Kung says. “All of these approvals are necessary before any funding will be allocated.”

Update, 17 August, 3 p.m.: The original story noting the anticipated passage of the Inflation Reduction Act has been updated to note that the bill has now been passed and signed into law. It also includes additional comments on the science provisions.

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