Alexander, Corker and Bipartisan Group of Senators Request Funding for Critical Science Programs

Failure to Fund U.S. Share of International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor Could Expose American Taxpayers to $750 Million Penalty and Endanger Oak Ridge National Laboratory's Lead Role in Project

Posted on March 18, 2008

U.S. Senators Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Bob Corker (R-TN) were joined by a bipartisan group of senators in sending a letter to the Senate Appropriations Committee requesting an additional $350 million in Fiscal Year 2008 for critical science programs, including programs at Tennessee’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). Administered by the Department of Energy’s Office of Science and the National Science Foundation, the requested funding would impact programs at ORNL for the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), a joint international research and development project that aims to demonstrate the feasibility of fusion power. Congress did not include the requested funding in the Omnibus Appropriations Act for Fiscal Year 2008 that was signed into law in December. “Not including this funding to begin with is an embarrassing mistake by Congress,” Alexander said. “We’re at a time when gasoline costs three dollars a gallon and climate change is all the talk, and we don’t fund our part of the effort to create unlimited energy with no environmental consequences? Congress should fund these programs like it said it would and be a leader in encouraging such endeavors rather than undermining them. Oak Ridge is the center of this activity, but it’s not just important to Oak Ridge and East Tennessee, it’s important to the whole country and the rest of the world.” “If additional funds are included in the emergency spending bill, funding for the important work at Oak Ridge should be a priority,” said Corker. “It is critical, for example, that we provide appropriate funding for ITER so we can keep the project on target and uphold the commitments we’ve made to our international partners.” The senators said that this funding would provide the funds to stay on track with the goals of the America COMPETES Act of 2007, which was signed into law by President Bush on August 9, 2007. The America COMPETES Act focuses on two primary areas of importance to maintaining and improving U.S. innovation in the 21st century: increasing research investment; and strengthening educational opportunities in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics from elementary through graduate school. It puts research programs at the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy’s Office of Science on a path to double their budgets during the next decade. Oak Ridge National Laboratory is the lead national laboratory coordinating U.S. participation in the ITER Project, which is an important effort to develop fusion as a possible new clean source of electricity, as well as a long-term symbol of international science collaboration. The U.S. signed an ITER agreement with its partners – the European Union, China, India, Japan, South Korea, and Russia – committing to provide funding for people and equipment for the project. In addition to endangering Oak Ridge’s lead role on the project, failure to contribute U.S. funds by the end of Fiscal Year 2008 could “call into question our commitment to our other international obligations,” according to a response from the U.S. State Department to a letter from Senators Alexander and Corker to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. In addition, it could trigger a default clause in the ITER agreement, costing American taxpayers over $750 million. In addition to Alexander and Corker, the letter was also signed by Senators Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), Pete Domenici (R-NM), Richard Durbin (D-IL), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Ted Kennedy (D-MA) and Chuck Schumer (D-NY). ### Text of the letter is below: March 17, 2008 The Honorable Robert C. Byrd Chairman Senate Committee on Appropriations United States Senate Washington, DC 20510 The Honorable Thad Cochran Ranking Member Senate Committee on Appropriation United States Senate Washington, DC 20510 Dear Chairman Byrd and Ranking Member Cochran: We are writing to request that an additional $350 million in emergency funding be included in the Fiscal Year 2008 supplemental appropriations bill for critical science programs administered by the Department of Energy's Office of Science and the National Science Foundation (NSF). We anticipate there will be a strong push by the Administration and others for a supplemental appropriations bill that focuses funding solely on the troops, and we understand that desire. However, should the Committee choose to include additional funding, this emergency funding is needed to support our critically important scientific workforce, avoid cost increases to our major scientific projects, and fulfill commitments to the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (TER) Project. Specifically, we ask that $250 million be allocated for the Office of Science, and $100 million be allocated to the National Science Foundation. The $250 million for the Office of Science will help keep our commitments to the ITER Project, ensure that we retain Fermi Laboratory as our nation's premier high physics facility, and provide the funding necessary to ensure that other major Department of Energy facilities in California, Illinois, New Mexico, New York, Tennessee, and Virginia can continue to meet our nation's scientific needs. The $1 00 million for NSF would provide additional graduate fellowships and research grants at our nation's universities, while helping maintain new initiatives in supercomputing and high-speed networking. ITER is a multinational scientific project and has been one of the Office of Science's top priorities for the last several years. The President's proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2008 included $160 million for the project. It is imperative that Congress appropriate supplemental funding for ITER as soon as possible to keep our commitments to our international partners, keep this important project on track, and avoid losses in scientific talent among U.S.-based employees working on ITER. The Office of Science and the National Science Foundation are key elements of the bipartisan America COMPETES Act, which passed Congress overwhelmingly last year. The funds requested in this letter will help restore the broad policy outlines in that bill to ensure our nation remains competitive in our global economy. We recognize the pressure you face to minimize the size of supplemental appropriations bills in the face competing budgetary priorities. However, we strongly believe that it is necessary to provide critically needed research funding immediately to avoid unintended and permanent damage to our critical scientific infrastructure and our standing in the world as the leader in science. Sincerely,