Will House negotiators in budget standoff continue effort to shut down biological and environmental research at DOE?

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(Graphic from U.S. Dept. of Energy)

As the likelihood of a government “shutdown” on April 8 appears to grow, House Republican budget negotiators continue to seek draconian budget cuts in a long list of programs – including, in effect, killing further 2011 funding for the Department of Energy’s large biological and environmental research program. Are they trying to decimate this wide-ranging $600 million research agenda, which has always had strong bipartisan support, because they don’t like the piece of it that provides climate modeling used in the IPCC assessments? In any case, another example of the House majority entering the anti-science intellectual wilderness.

The Washington Post reported today (excerpt):

Odds of government shutdown rise as parties snipe over faltering budget talks

A breakdown in closed-door negotiations between congressional leaders and the White House on funding the federal government makes it increasingly possible that Congress will not agree on a long-term funding resolution or another temporary measure by an April 8 deadline.

That means that the threat of a government shutdown — which had receded in recent weeks because of congressional approval of several stopgap funding measures — appears to be back on the table. …

Democratic aides said talks had been underway for nearly two weeks between [House Speaker] Boehner’s staff and the White House budget office, with steady progress leading to an agreement that the two sides would meet halfway between the $61 billion in cuts approved by the House and Democrats’ preference for maintaining current spending levels. …

But on Tuesday, according to Democrats, House Republicans changed the terms, insisting that negotiations start with the House-passed bill …[Boehner said] “The status quo is unacceptable, and right now that is all Washington Democrats are offering.”

Schumer’s office shot back in a statement that “after days of positive negotiations, with significant flexibility shown by the Speaker, the House Republican leadership is back to agonizing over whether to give in to right-wing demands that they abandon any compromise on their extreme cuts.” …

There is much to be said about all this and its implications for a wide range of domestic issues, including science funding. The weekly journal Science reported in its March 18 issue (subscription required) one implication of the House budget cuts that, if accepted as passed by the House, would have devastating effects on a wide range of biological and environmental research supported by a $600 million program at the U.S. Department of Energy (excerpt, with some added links):

U.S. Science Funding

Attack on Climate Studies Would Shutter Entire DOE Biology Program

By Jeffrey Mervis

Scientists were caught by surprise when they found out that the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) office of Biological and Environmental Research (BER) would be shut down if a 2011 spending bill passed last month by the House of Representatives holds sway (Science, 25 February 2011, p. 997). The new Republican House majority has pledged to trim the federal deficit by cutting spending—and to be sure, House leaders are not fans of government-funded climate change research.

But researchers also say the assault on BER—one of several agencies that support climate research—reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the office’s role in generating data for the global climate models that many Republicans love to hate. And climate science is only a small part of what BER does. The blunt attack on BER’s climate program would also cripple the office’s efforts in systems biology, genomics, bioenergy, and environmental remediation. Some programs trace their roots back to the dawn of the atomic age. …

“I’m baffled by this proposal,” says Anna Palmisano, who headed BER until she retired from the federal government last November, noting that the office has always enjoyed good relations with Congress. “This isn’t some nibble. It’s a draconian step that reflects some deep-seated hostility to what BER does.”

The cuts are contained in a single sentence of a 380-page appropriations bill (H.R. 1) that proposes a $61 billion reduction from current spending levels. … [L]egislators singled out BER by capping its spending for the year at $302 million. Given that the fiscal year is nearly half over, the cap represents a cut of almost 50% in an annual budget of $588 million, effectively leaving BER with no money to operate. …

Paul Gilna, who directs one of three 5-year, $25-million-a-year bioenergy research centers that BER launched in 2007, doesn’t mince words when asked what would happen if the House bill were enacted. “For all intents and purposes, H.R. 1 closes down BER,” he says. …

As its name implies, BER has a twin focus on biological and environmental/climate science, and its budget is divided almost equally between the two. Both components make competitive awards to individual investigators. In addition, the biology program supports three bioenergy research centers—Gilna leads one based at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, and the others are at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) in California and the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Each has partnered with dozens of research teams around the country to develop new biofuels that would lessen the country’s dependence on foreign oil. BER also funds the Joint Genome Institute, a national user facility at LBNL for sequencing and understanding the functions of environmental and energy-related microbes and plants.

The environmental/climate program also operates large user facilities. One, the Environmental Molecular Science Laboratory at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Washington, is a world leader in using proteomics—changes in the entire complement of proteins expressed in cells—to explore thorny environmental and energy problems. The second, the Atmospheric Radiation Measurement (ARM) climate research facility, draws on a global network of ground and mobile stations to study clouds and other properties of the atmosphere, notably aerosols. Its unique capabilities enable scientists to shed light on these poorly understood but vital components of climate change.

BER also funds an earth systems modeling program that develops and evaluates the increasingly sophisticated climate models used in the periodic reports issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Many climate and environmental scientists say that BER’s tandem support of modelers and model users explains why the office, among the many DOE science programs, was singled out for elimination.

“If you don’t believe in climate change, why fund any research on it, including the models?” says BERAC [Biological and Environmental Research Advisory Committee] member Judy Wall, a biochemistry professor at the University of Missouri, Columbia, who receives BER funding for research on bacteria that may be useful in bioremediation. “If you accept that climate is changing, what BER is trying to do is understand what is causing the clouds and where they occur and their optical properties, and then help to build a climate model that resolves some of these questions. And that is very useful whether you believe the temperature increases we’re seeing are manmade or not.”

Any significant cuts in DOE-supported biological and environmental research will be harmful to science. In particular, DOE is one of the key participating agencies in the U.S. Global Change Research Program, the coordinated federal effort to advance the science of climate and associated global environmental changes.

One can be somewhat hopeful that Senate negotiators will limit the damage, but one can also expect that they will allow some damage to be done in order to get a deal with the hard-nosed right-wingers in the House. Stay tuned.

Earlier posts:

March 18 update: Federal government shutdown temporarily averted again with stopgap measure that avoids anti-science provisions

A federal “shutdown” isn’t really a shutdown – but it does harm science and society

House research budget cuts “would effectively end America’s legendary status as the leader of the worldwide scientific community” – Ray Orbach, Bush’s Energy Dept. Science Under Secretary

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