Scientists use business argument to gain funds for basic research
STANFORD -- In the midst of budget-slashing plans and a spitting match with Congress that shut down the federal government for a few days, President Clinton signed a bill on Nov. 13 containing one small surprise that went mostly overlooked: a $100 million raise in funds for basic scientific research facilities in the Department of Energy (DOE).
The increase is even more surprising because it went to Capitol Hill from the Democratic White House as a presidential initiative, and came back from both houses of Congress with a full Republican seal of approval.
Overall research funds for the energy department are trimmed in the $19.3 million energy and water appropriations bill. However, the bill states that Congress "strongly supports" the DOE's scientific facilities initiative, a White House-endorsed plan to increase the operating budgets of 23 unique laboratories that are operated by DOE and used by about 15,000 scientists from around the world.
For one of those labs, the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Laboratory (SSRL), the initiative means a $3.6 million gain in operating funds for fiscal 1996 - enough to add about 20 staff members to run the particle accelerators that are the source of the laboratory's powerful beams of light, and to assist the scientists who come to Stanford to use them.
The extra funds also means help for SSRL's parent lab, the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, which is scheduled to begin laying off workers in January to meet a leaner budget. SLAC will reduce its staff by 60-70 employees, but would have had to cut up to 80 without the SSRL funds.
Insiders say the story of this small uptick in an otherwise downsized budget starts with Arthur Bienenstock, director of SSRL. Bienenstock, who is also a professor of applied physics at Stanford, is more modest about his role. He said in an interview last week that he and several others came to the same realization at the same time: that the United States was being pound-wise and penny-foolish in its support for basic energy sciences.
"It was an efficiency argument," said Emily Pelton of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, who worked with Bienenstock on an analysis of laboratory use. "[DOE] was paying a fixed cost to keep the [science] facilities running, but only running them at 50 percent levels. For an incremental 10 to 15 percent investment, they could get a 50 percent increase in use."
DOE's basic research facilities include particle accelerators like SLAC that are used to probe the basic properties of matter, and high-powered instruments like SSRL, which produces beams of light 100 million times brighter than a conventional X-ray. Scientists use the beams to detect objects ranging from atom-sized contaminants on a silicon chip to the structure of bone remaining after osteoporosis.
Scientists from universities, government research groups and industry wait months to take a turn at using these DOE facilities. Most of the facilities are unique in the world, or have only a few competitors in Europe and Japan. They are too complex and costly for a university or private industry to build, and they represent a major capital investment of taxpayers' money - for example, the new Advanced Light Source at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, source of the world's brightest X-rays, cost $146 billion to build.
Yet because of budget constraints, most of these high-powered instruments have not been operating full time. Since opening its doors in 1993, the Advanced Light Source has operated at only 56 percent of its capacity, according to its director, Brian Kincaid. Bienenstock said the same was true for many DOE facilities - one, the Intense Pulsed Neutron Source at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois, is used for only 12 weeks out of the year.
"The United States has world leadership in these technologies," Kincaid said. "It is silly to build them and not get full use out of them."
That was the argument that Bienenstock took to Washington in the spring of 1994. SSRL was providing time on its syncrotron radiation beamlines to more than 900 researchers running more than 200 experiments, yet most users needed more time than they could be allotted, and many more were on waiting lists.
"We didn't have enough operating money to pay the salaries of the staff we needed to safely run the accelerators and the instrumentation for more than six months out of the year," Bienenstock said.
When he outlined this situation to Iran Thomas, acting head of DOE's basic energy sciences division, Bienenstock said that Thomas told him, "I am worried about the financial status of every facility we operate."
"After that meeting, I drove downtown [to Washington, D.C.] to meet with Martha Krebs, director of the Office of Energy Research," Bienenstock said. "I thought, I shouldn't be trying to raise funds just for SSRL. We should be trying to correct this entire situation. On that drive, I formulated the idea of a facilities initiative."
Krebs supported the idea, and Bienenstock began working with directors of the other laboratories to gather data on their operating costs. Meanwhile, Gary Benenthum, in the Office of Management and Budget, requested a survey of the scientific users of DOE science facilities, which showed that a relatively small increase in the laboratories' overall operating budget of $800 million would allow most of the facilities to go from part-time to full-time operation.
Krebs went to Congress to present a presidential initiative based on those facts. It was praised by both houses and singled out by the president when he signed the energy and water appropriations bill. Clinton called the science initiative "a modest investment that will leverage a significant return from the scientific community."
James Decker, deputy director in the Office of Energy Research, could not predict whether the operating funds will continue in future budgets. "We are always in the position of having to make the choice between operating existing facilities, developing new facilities and conducting research," he said. "They all come under the same budget."
In fiscal 1996, SSRL's extra support will be enough to increase operating time by 50 percent, to nine months a year, Bienenstock said.
"In addition, we have gotten approximately a million-dollar increase in capital equipment to allow us to upgrade our instrumentation, and we have about $2 million in new funding for a new beamline for environmental studies," he said.
Bienenstock said that at first his fellow lab directors were "incredulous" at the idea of a $100 million facilities initiative. "They didn't believe it would be possible to raise this magnitude of money at a time when overall budgets were tight. They thought we would have to limp along on less."
The Advanced Light Source is now operating 24 hours a day thanks to the initiative, said director Kincaid. He attributes the success of the proposal to two things:
"It worked because it was inclusive. It included all [of DOE's] scientific facilities instead of singling out some for special funding," Kincaid said. "Traditionally, [when f