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Research Infrastructure Initiatives in the CHIPS and Science Act

SEP 08, 2022
The new CHIPS and Science Act outlines an ambitious vision for research infrastructure, encompassing large-scale science facility construction projects as well as initiatives in areas such as quantum computing, high-intensity lasers, and research reactors.
Will Thomas
Spencer R. Weart Director of Research in History, Policy, and Culture

Petawatt laser at BELLA Center

Berkeley Lab recently completed a new beamline for the petawatt laser at its BELLA Center. The CHIPS and Science Act envisions that, pending appropriations, DOE will rapidly scale up support for such high-power lasers as part of a broader push to expand research infrastructure. (Image credit – Marilyn Sargent, © The Regents of the University of California, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory)

The CHIPS and Science Act that was signed into law last month outlines an ambitious vision for science policy that spans the National Science Foundation, Department of Energy, and National Institute of Standards and Technology. DOE and NSF-backed research facilities are a key focus, with provisions that would, if fully funded , accelerate construction of flagship projects and expand support for smaller-scale R&D centers and initiatives.

Major DOE facilities

The House Science Committee has been working for several years to reinforce and accelerate the DOE Office of Science’s portfolio of major construction projects, but it has taken the CHIPS and Science Act to ensconce funding targets for the full portfolio in statute. Some of those targets reflect current funding trajectories, but others call for significant changes to the status quo.

ITER. The act recommends Congress immediately increase the annual U.S. contribution to the ITER fusion facility being built in France to around $400 million, which is considerably more than the current level of about $240 million. Notably, the amount is also higher than the roughly $300 million level recommended in the Energy Act of 2020 as well as figures included in the version of the CHIPS and Science Act the House passed in February. The reason for the shift is unclear, but ITER has recently indicated it will soon revise its cost and schedule baseline, citing pandemic-related delays.

LBNF/DUNE. Both the act and DOE itself aim to ramp funding for the LBNF/DUNE neutrino project to about $300 million by fiscal year 2025, up from the current annual budget of $180 million. DOE arrived at that trajectory earlier this year as part of a plan to cope with an increase of more than $1 billion in project costs while still beginning science operations in 2031. However, the trajectory does not account for funding the Inflation Reduction Act is providing to DOE , which might be used to accelerate the schedule.

EIC and SNS-STS. DOE’s Electron-Ion Collider and Spallation Neutron Source Second Target Station projects are still only receiving budgets to support early work. Inflation Reduction Act funding could jumpstart progress, but Congress would have to maintain elevated funding levels in following years to keep things moving smoothly. The CHIPS and Science Act envisions the budgets of each project cresting at around $300 million in fiscal year 2026.

LCLS-II upgrade. SLAC’s new X-ray free electron laser, the Linac Coherent Light Source II, is set to achieve its “first light” early next year, and a follow-on upgrade is already in the works. The CHIPS and Science Act recommends a slightly faster ramp up in funding for the upgrade than appropriators are currently proposing, aiming for peak funding of $135 million in fiscal year 2025, with the goal of starting operations by the end of 2026.

Cryomodule maintenance. The act recommends ramping up funding for a cryomodule maintenance facility at SLAC faster than congressional appropriators’ current proposals. Cryomodules are the core components of state-of-the-art accelerators such as LCLS-II, and the facility would relieve the need to ship them to Fermilab in Illinois or Jefferson Lab in Virginia for maintenance.

Chips and Science Act Budget Targets for Selected Facilities

Major NSF facilities

MREFC funding. The act envisions increasing NSF’s Major Research Equipment and Facilities Construction account from its current budget of about $250 million to a sustained level of around $370 million by fiscal year 2025. The account funds both large construction projects and some mid-scale projects.

Extremely Large Telescopes. While the act does not allocate the MREFC increase to specific projects, it would likely benefit the U.S. ELT program, which encompasses prospective U.S. contributions to the planned Giant Magellan Telescope in Chile as well as the Thirty Meter Telescope in Hawaii, should it move ahead . However, even the recommended levels for MREFC would fall short of those that last year’s astrophysics decadal survey anticipated would be needed to move ELT forward at the desired pace.

Operating budgets. Outside MREFC, NSF is facing a severe budget crunch from the mounting funding requirements of facilities coming online, particularly its newest telescopes. That pressure could be alleviated by the multibillion-dollar increases the act recommends for NSF’s research budget that are not reserved for new activities, but there will be competing demands for that money should Congress provide it.

Facility Operation Transition pilot. The act directs NSF to run for a total of five years a pilot program that alleviates cost pressures from new facilities and divestment from old ones, which are otherwise borne by individual agency directorates. NSF launched the program in fiscal year 2020 and proposed allocating $12 million to it in its fiscal year 2023 budget request. The act stipulates that the pilot program cover between 10% and 50% of facilities’ costs during their first five years of operations and it instructs NSF to report back to Congress after the program’s fifth year to help determine if it should be made permanent.

Portfolio reviews. In addition, the act directs NSF to continue carrying out periodic assessments of the costs and benefits of operating facilities that have exceeded their planned lifespans. NASA routinely undertakes such assessments and NSF has also previously used them to justify partially withdrawing funding from certain facilities.

Other projects, facilities, and centers.

National labs modernization. The act recommends that Congress appropriate $640 million per year through fiscal year 2027 for modernization and maintenance projects at the National Renewable Energy Lab, the National Energy Technology Lab, Idaho National Lab, and Savannah River National Lab. A further $160 million per year is recommended for such projects at Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore, and Sandia National Labs. In addition, the act recommends that Congress increase DOE’s Science Laboratories Infrastructure account from its current level of $291 million to $550 million through fiscal year 2027. The account funds general infrastructure projects at the 10 national labs overseen by the DOE Office of Science.

NSF mid-scale programs. The act recommends ramping up funding for NSF’s agency-wide Mid-scale Research Infrastructure programs to $180 million in fiscal year 2027. The programs fund equipment and facilities with total costs ranging from $6 million to about $100 million. Directorate-level mid-scale programs provide further funding for projects at the lower end of that range but are not addressed in the act.

New DOE mid-scale program. The act directs the DOE Office of Science to create its own mid-scale program for funding equipment costing between $1 million and $20 million, with a target total budget of $150 million per year. Items acquired or developed through the program would be installed at user facilities, with an emphasis on encouraging partnerships with minority-serving institutions and institutions in EPSCoR jurisdictions and rural areas.

CMB-S4. Within DOE’s high energy physics program, the act recommends ramping up funding for the 21-telescope Cosmic Microwave Background Stage 4 project to $80 million in fiscal year 2026, with the goal of starting operations no later than the end of 2030. The project’s estimated total cost to DOE will be between $320 million and $395 million, but so far it has received only token amounts. NSF is also expected to contribute funding through its MREFC account.

High-intensity lasers. The DOE Office of Science is directed to establish a high-intensity laser research initiative that draws from across its program offices and responds to a 2017 National Academies report spotlighting that U.S. capabilities in the field lag those in Europe. The act recommends Congress provide initial funding of $50 million, ramping up to $250 million per year in fiscal year 2027. DOE first responded to the report by initiating an upgrade to SLAC’s Matter in Extreme Conditions end station, but it has since put the project on the back burner. The act directs DOE to complete that project by the end of 2028, though it does not recommend a budget profile for it.

Underground facilities. Within its high energy physics program, DOE is directed to establish a competitive grant program for “underground science” and to submit an inventory to Congress of mines in the U.S. that may be suitable for scientific use. DOE has used facilities such as the Soudan Underground Laboratory in Minnesota and the Sanford Underground Research Facility in South Dakota to shield major particle physics experiments from cosmic rays. SURF is currently being expanded for LBNF/DUNE and is also working toward designation as a DOE user facility.

Quantum networking. The CHIPS and Science Act builds on the National Quantum Initiative Act of 2018 through a series of provisions , including one that directs DOE to create a “quantum network infrastructure R&D program” with a funding target of $100 million per year. Managed within DOE’s advanced scientific computing research program, the effort extends DOE’s current work with industry and university partners to establish quantum communications links between its 17 national labs.

Quantum user program. The new act also creates a “Quantum User Expansion for Science and Technology” (QUEST) program within DOE to provide researchers access to quantum computing infrastructure, with a funding target starting at $30 million and rising to more than $36 million by fiscal year 2027.

Microelectronics R&D centers. Atop the $13 billion the act directly provides for new semiconductor R&D initiatives through the Departments of Commerce and Defense, it directs DOE to establish up to four “microelectronics science research centers,” each funded at up to $25 million annually.

University research reactors. Through its Office of Nuclear Energy, DOE is directed to support construction of up to four new university-based research reactors, with an initial total annual funding target of $45 million that rises to $140 million by fiscal year 2027. In addition, the office is directed to support consortia that broaden access to reactor facilities for research and training purposes, as well as refurbishments of existing reactors that are focused on R&D in “advanced nuclear technology” or on conversions to low-enriched uranium fuel.

NIST reactor facility. The act directs NIST to develop a plan within 30 months for eventually replacing the reactor it operates at its Center for Neutron Research in Maryland, one of the nation’s three principal user facilities for neutron-scattering research. The reactor is 55 years old and is currently in an extended shutdown following a radiation incident attributed to operator error, but it is otherwise in good condition and NIST expects to continue operating it for years to come.

Isotope R&D and production. The act endorses DOE’s recent creation of a standalone Isotope R&D and Production program and recommends quickly expanding its budget from $82 million to $176 million, ramping up to a peak level of $216 million in fiscal year 2025. Those levels would support simultaneous construction of an enrichment facility for producing stable isotopes and a new radioisotope processing facility, both at Oak Ridge National Lab. Those aspirations significantly outstrip provisions in the version of the bill the House passed early this year and may reflect heightened concern about Russia’s role in supply chains for critical isotopes.

Accelerator R&D and production. The act also endorses DOE’s recent creation of an Accelerator R&D and Production program within the Office of Science, and recommends ramping up its budget from its current $18 million level to $24 million in fiscal year 2027. However, appropriators are proposing $27 million for fiscal year 2023, eclipsing the target profile.

Helium conservation. Labs commonly use liquid helium to cool equipment to ultracold temperatures, but it is also a scarce resource that has been subject to cost fluctuations and supply disruptions. The CHIPS and Science Act directs DOE and NSF to fund the purchase, installation, and repair of helium recycling equipment. The NSF effort will be of unlimited duration and funded through the agency’s Major Research Instrumentation program, while DOE will be permitted to renew its program for periods of up to five years and may use it to fund projects at both its own facilities and those operated by grant recipients. The DOE program will also support R&D on alternatives to helium. The act does not set a target budget for either effort.

Fusion power plant. Building on provisions in the Energy Act of 2020 that expand the scope of DOE’s Fusion Energy Sciences program, the CHIPS and Science Act directs the program to support at least two “national teams” to develop conceptual designs and technology roadmaps for a fusion power plant. The effort has an initial target budget of $35 million, ramping to $80 million in fiscal year 2026. The act recommends that Congress immediately boost the fusion program’s overall annual budget from its current level of $713 million to a sustained level of more than $1 billion.

Fusion-related computing. DOE is also directed to support the application of high-performance computing techniques to fusion energy R&D, including by establishing a national “innovation center” dedicated to the subject.

Materials research database. DOE is directed to support a “web-based platform to develop and provide access to a database of computed information on known and predicted materials properties and computational tools,” with a target annual budget of $10 million.

NSF computing needs. NSF is directed to assess the computing needs of the research it funds and to develop a roadmap for meeting them. In addition, as a pilot program NSF is directed to select three universities to host “secure computing enclaves” that can safeguard sensitive data and information for researchers. A separate National Secure Data Service demonstration project will provide a collection of privacy-protected data that researchers can use for statistical analysis.

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