House Passes Comprehensive Bill to Guide Energy Department Science
On Jan. 24, the House unanimously passed the “Department of Energy Research and Innovation Act ,” which would provide the first-ever comprehensive statutory guidance for DOE’s Office of Science and its network of national laboratories. The bill also includes provisions to enhance technology transfer from DOE’s 17 national laboratories, improve research coordination across the department, and boost advanced nuclear R&D. A section-by-section summary is provided below.
Although the Senate has not yet indicated if it will take up the legislation, the bill’s sponsors noted that it is a product of bicameral negotiations begun last year when Congress was considering a broader energy policy bill. The effort to pass the broader bill ultimately faltered in the final weeks of the 114th Congress.
Legislators extol DOE basic research’s value to nation
Speaking in support of the bill prior to the vote, bill sponsor and House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) said the legislation will “advance basic research and set clear science priorities for the Department of Energy.” He also expressed the view that the Office of Science’s six basic research programs - which include the basic energy sciences, biological and environmental research, advanced scientific computing, nuclear physics, high energy physics, and fusion energy - are “the core mission of the Department and lead to scientific discovery that can provide benefits across the economy.”
House Science Committee Ranking Member Eddie Bernie Johnson (D-TX), also a sponsor of the bill, underscored the value of DOE’s basic research programs to the nation’s international competitiveness and economic future. Noting the Office of Science is the largest supporter of the physical sciences research in the country, she called the 10 national labs it oversees the “crown jewels of our national research infrastructure,” a sentiment later repeated by Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-IL).
Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) cited climate change and growing international competition as reasons to support the bill, calling it a landmark bipartisan effort. He said entrepreneurs are able to harness the “revolutionary research” emerging from the national labs to start companies and create “hundreds of quality jobs” andcalled out the National Renewable Energy Laboratory located in his district as one example of such an incubator. He remarked,
The neutron sources, particle accelerators, and light sources, among many other Office of Science user facilities, are home to some of the most important scientific work conducted in America and represent some of the best partnerships our labs have with private industry.
Bill draws on science priorities of multiple members of Congress
The legislation incorporates language from seven bills the House passed during the 114th Congress, reflecting a breadth of House member priorities and over three years of legislative work.
Hultrgen, who represents Fermilab in Congress, sponsored multiple sections of the bill. Underscoring the centrality of the labs to the nation’s research enterprise, he explained that tens of thousands of active researchers rely on facilities at the national labs each year to conduct their science: “These facilities are normally operating 24/7, with researchers blocking off time—sometimes just minutes—to use equipment that no one university or business could build and maintain on its own.”
The bill contains language Hultgren sponsored last Congress that directs DOE to develop two or more exascale computing machine architectures. He touted this effort as critical to maintaining U.S. supercomputing leadership given that “China not only has the fastest computer in the world, but the two fastest computers in the world.”
Rep. Steve Knight (D-CA) highlighted the bills’ provisions, drawn from a bill he sponsored last Congress, that would establish a basic research initiative focused on solar fuels, remarking that researchers up and down the coast of California are already working in the research area and in the process are “train[ing] the next generation of researchers in chemistry, physics, and materials science.”
Rep. Randy Weber (R-TX), sponsor of the bill’s Title IV, drawn from the “Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act,” expressed his pleasure that the bill directs DOE to initiate planning for construction of a fast neutron research reactor:
Right now, we are behind. … The Russians are outpacing us on the next design of nuclear reactors. That is simply unacceptable. We need a versatile neutron source, and Title IV of this will produce a situation where we will have the ability for the national labs to partner with private industry and be able to do that so that they don’t get built overseas, which is totally unacceptable.
If signed into law, the bill would provide comprehensive policy guidance for the Office of Science and its six basic research programs for the first time in the office’s history. Further, it would serve as a guidepost to the new secretary of energy on Congress’ energy research priorities and the value Congress places on the department’s research and the national labs.
Highlights of the ‘DOE Research and Innovation Act’
Title I - Laboratory Modernization and Technology Transfer
- Early stage tech demonstration. Enables the national labs to utilize technology transfer funds for early stage and pre-commercial technology demonstration activities;
- Calls for accelerating the pace of clean energy innovation in the U.S.;
- Laboratory-directed R&D. Prohibits the national labs from spending general and administration overhead funds on laboratory-directed R&D;
- Online grant database. Requires DOE to create a public online database that contains searchable listings of all its R&D contracts, grants, cooperative agreements, and task orders;
- Tech transfer report. Directs DOE to issue a report on improving its ability to transfer new energy technologies to the private sector;
- Lab-to-market technology commercialization. Authorizes and extends the Agreements for Commercializing Technology pilot program, which provides the labs with “increased authority to negotiate contract terms, such as intellectual property rights, payment structures, performance guarantees, and multiparty collaborations”
Title II - DOE Research Coordination
- Protects ARPA-E grant recipients’ proprietary information rights;
- Strategic research portfolio analysis. Reauthorizes a department-wide strategic portfolio analysis and coordination plan for DOE’s R&D programs;
- Energy Innovation Hubs. Authorizes the DOE’s Energy Innovation Hubs for the first time
Title III - DOE Office of Science Policy
Basic Energy Sciences
- Energy Research Frontier Centers. Sets specific policies for DOE’s Energy Research Frontier Centers;
- User facilities. Authorizes the construction of user facilities, including x-ray light sources, neutron sources, and nanoscale science research centers;
- Accelerator and storage rings. Directs DOE to carry out R&D on advanced accelerator and storage ring technologies;
- Solar Fuels Research Initiative. Establishes a Solar Fuels Research Initiative “to expand photochemistry, electrochemistry, biochemistry, and materials science useful for the practical development of experimental systems to convert solar energy to chemical energy,” including artificial photosynthesis;
- Electricity Storage Research Initiative. Establishes an Electricity Storage Research Initiative to “expand theoretical and fundamental knowledge to control, store, and convert electrical energy to chemical energy and chemical energy to electrical energy”
Advanced Scientific Computing Research
- Exascale computing. Directs DOE to develop two or more exascale computing machine architectures;
- High-performance computing for energy. Directs DOE to “support research in high-performance computing and networking relevant to energy applications”;
- Applied mathematics. Directs DOE to develop, test, and support mathematics, models, and algorithms for complex systems
High Energy Physics
- P5 recommendations. Finds that DOE should incorporate the findings and recommendations of the Particle Physics Project Prioritization Panel (P5) report in future department planning;
- Research access to international facilities. Requires DOE to ensure U.S. researchers have access “to the most advanced accelerator facilities and research capabilities in the world, including the Large Hadron Collider”;
- Neutrinos. Directs DOE to carry out research “on rare decay processes and the nature of the neutrino,” including in collaboration with the National Science Foundation;
- Dark matter and energy. Directs DOE to carry out research “on the nature of dark energy and dark matter” in collaboration with NSF and NASA
Biological and Environmental Research
- Systems-level biology. Directs DOE to carry out R&D “in fundamental, structural, computational, and systems biology to increase systems-level understanding of the complex biological systems,” including on biofuels, the global carbon cycle, and sub-surface environments;
- Climate science restriction. Restricts DOE from starting new climate science-related initiatives without first determining that such work is well-coordinated with other federal agencies;
- Low dose radiation impacts. Re-establishes the low dose radiation research program
- Materials for fusion. Directs DOE to carry out R&D “to identify, characterize, and demonstrate materials that can endure the neutron, plasma, and heat fluxes expected in a fusion power system”;
- Tokamak and inertial fusion. Directs DOE to support R&D “to optimize the tokamak approach to fusion energy, as well as inertial fusion for energy applications”;
- Magnetic fusion power plant. Directs DOE to explore alternative and enabling fusion energy concepts that could lead to the establishment of a commercial magnetic fusion power plant, and instructs DOE to work with ARPA-E to assess the potential for a fusion energy project that could lead to a commercially viable fusion power plant;
- 10-year fusion R&D plan. Requires a report to Congress on DOE’s 10-year plan for fusion energy R&D, including how to “establish or solidify a lead in the global fusion energy development effort”
- Isotopes. Authorizes DOE to carry out a program for the production of isotopes needed for research, medical, industrial, or related purposes;
- Facility for Rare Isotope Beams. Renames the “Rare Isotope Accelerator” as the “Facility for Rare Isotope Beams”
Science Laboratories Infrastructure Program
- Establishes a program to improve the “safety, efficiency, and mission readiness” of infrastructure at the Office of Science’s laboratories
Title IV - Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities
- Nuclear research reactor. Directs DOE to construct an advanced nuclear research reactor, featuring a versatile fast neutron source, by the end of 2025;
- High-performance computing for nuclear. Launches a program to utilize high-performance computer modeling and simulation techniques to advance new reactor technologies; and
- National Reactor Innovation Center. Establishes a National Reactor Innovation Center to enable the private sector to collaborate with and leverage the expertise of the national labs in order to test and demonstrate privately funded nuclear reactor concepts.