Note: This story was updated at 12:20 p.m. June 28.
U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein on Wednesday said the president’s budget request for the next fiscal year could lead to a 33 percent workforce reduction at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. About 1,600 of the lab’s roughly 4,800 employees could be laid off, the senator’s office said.
Feinstein, a Democrat from California, and other members of the Senate Energy and Water Development Subcommittee, including Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, a Republican who is chair of the subcommittee, had a budget hearing with new Energy Secretary Rick Perry on Wednesday afternoon, June 21.
Across the U.S. Department of Energy, a workforce of 29,000 employees could be reduced by 23 percent at labs such as ORNL that are managed for DOE and not for the National Nuclear Security Administration, Feinstein said. (The NNSA is a semi-autonomous agency within DOE.) That would be a reduction of 6,700 employees at the non-NNSA, non-weapons labs, the senator said.
“Every non-NNSA lab would see drastic employment cuts under this proposed budget,” said Feinstein, the ranking Democratic member of the Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee. “We must change this budget.”
The potential layoffs at DOE labs would be the result of a budget request submitted by President Donald Trump to Congress on Tuesday, May 23. But the president’s budget request has not yet been approved by Congress, and it has run into bipartisan opposition. Some legislators have declared the budget request “dead on arrival,” and others have said they won’t even review some proposed cuts such as a 30 percent funding reduction for the State Department.
During Wednesday’s hearing, senators said the president’s budget request for DOE was “especially bad,” they were “very disappointed,” and they had a negative view of the proposal. It didn’t appear to have strong support from any members of the subcommittee.
Feinstein’s office emphasized that the layoff numbers she cited Wednesday are based solely on the budget request from Trump and do not reflect what Congress will pass. The numbers are based on discussions with lab experts, the senator’s office said.
Here are potential workforce reductions that Feinstein reported for other DOE labs:
- Ames Laboratory in Iowa—41 percent
- Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Washington—29 percent
- Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California—27 percent
- National Energy Technology Laboratory, which has several locations—16 percent
No one at Wednesday’s hearing, including Perry, disputed the workforce reduction percentages reported by Feinstein or the total number of 6,700 employees that could be laid off at non-NNSA labs if the president’s budget request were implemented. ORNL declined to comment last week on Feinstein’s numbers. DOE has not responded to budget-related questions since May 23, and the department did not respond to another email seeking comment on Tuesday.
During the budget hearing this past Wednesday, Feinstein said managers of the non-NNSA labs are now preparing for potential layoffs and developing workforce restructuring plans. It’s not clear if Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which declined to comment, might be among the labs developing such plans.
Besides the workforce reductions, Feinstein also said the president’s budget request would lead to decreases in the operational run times of all major research machines, cuts to neutron sources at ORNL, and cuts at nanoscale centers and accelerators at five national labs each.
DOE’s Office of Science, the budget for the national labs, would be cut by 17 percent, Feinstein said. A funding reduction of $874 million has been proposed for the Office of Science, dropping the total spending to $4.5 billion.
ORNL is one of 10 DOE laboratories that are Office of Science labs. Oak Ridge Today has reported that, under the president’s budget request, ORNL could lose $185 million in funding from Fiscal Year 2017 to Fiscal Year 2018. Total funding for the lab would drop to about $1.06 billion, a cut of roughly 15 percent.
The reduction would be even larger, $206 million over two years, when comparing Fiscal Year 2018 to Fiscal Year 2016.
Advanced scientific computing research, computing, and the leadership computing facility at ORNL could benefit under the president’s budget request. But there would be big cuts to basic energy sciences, biological and environmental research, electricity delivery and energy reliability, nuclear and fusion energy, and high-energy and nuclear physics.
ORNL is DOE’s largest multiprogram science and energy laboratory. The lab released a general statement on Friday.
“ORNL staff continue to focus on their work as the budget makes its way through Congress,” the statement said. “ORNL has enjoyed strong public support for many years because of our expertise in a variety of scientific and technical disciplines essential to national priorities in energy, industry, and security.”
Many officials are skeptical that the president’s budget request for DOE will pass as proposed, and some have said they think Oak Ridge will be okay.
During Wednesday’s hearing, Alexander said presidential budget requests “don’t have a great track record,” whether proposed by Democrats or Republicans. He said there’s not much good in the budget request for the U.S. Department of Energy for Fiscal Year 2018, which starts October 1.
“This one is particularly bad,” said Alexander, who has proposed doubling energy research rather than cutting it. One of the few bright spots in the fiscal year 2018 budget request, Alexander said, is the priority placed on supercomputing.
Feinstein said the president’s budget request would cut four DOE applied energy programs by up to 70 percent. One of those programs is Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, or EERE. That program provided $116.9 million to ORNL in fiscal year 2015, and it is a partner of ORNL’s Manufacturing Demonstration Demonstration Facility, a showcase facility in Hardin Valley.
The other applied energy programs that could be cut are Nuclear Energy, Fossil Energy, and Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability. Several senators who seemed opposed pointed out that the president’s budget request would also eliminate the Advanced Research Projects Agency—Energy, or ARPA-E, among other reductions.
“That’s not what we’re going to do,” Alexander said of the proposal to eliminate ARPA-E. That agency came out of a bipartisan effort that started 12 years ago to make America more competitive and raise family incomes, Alexander said. It was modeled after DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
“My view, and (that) of other senators, is that ARPA-E has been a big success,” Alexander said.
In his opening statement Wednesday, Perry told senators he considers the DOE laboratories a national treasure.
“They are the future of innovation in this country,” Perry said.
A former Texas governor, Perry said he has been “in absolute awe” of the scope and diversity of DOE’s mission and its consequential work. He pointed out important investments that include ensuring the safety and effectiveness of nuclear weapons, focusing on early-stage research and development, fulfilling federal cleanup commitments, and achieving what is known as exascale computing.
“But there are other hard conversations that we need to have,” Perry said. “This budget proposal makes some difficult choices, but it’s paramount that we execute our fiduciary responsibility to the American taxpayers.”
He could not guarantee that no one will lose their job, Perry said.
“I’m a realist,” he said.
Perry toured ORNL’s Manufacturing Demonstration Demonstration in Hardin Valley on Monday, May 22. While there, he pledged to be an advocate for at least some Oak Ridge programs. Among the programs Perry learned about while in Oak Ridge were the planned Uranium Processing Facility and nuclear weapons work at the Y-12 National Security Complex, the cleanup of federal sites in Oak Ridge, and advanced manufacturing, 3D printing, materials science research, and supercomputing at ORNL.
But the president’s budget request released on Tuesday, May 23, the day after Perry’s visit to Oak Ridge, showed large cuts to programs for which the energy secretary had seemed to pledge a day earlier to be an advocate. Among the proposed cuts were the $185 million funding reduction for ORNL and a potential cut of $1.4 billion to Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, a 69.3 percent reduction.
DOE has not responded to requests for comment since then about Perry’s advocacy of Oak Ridge and what, specifically, he might be advocating—and whether he supports or opposes proposed cuts to labs such as ORNL and programs like Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.
On Wednesday, Perry told senators the DOE budget request was already written when he was confirmed by the U.S. Senate on March 2, but he was there to “robustly defend it.” He said Trump deserves credit for starting a discussion of how to most wisely spend scarce federal resources, and he expressed a willingness to work with Congress on the budget.
“With your help, I believe we can attain many positive outcomes at the Department of Energy,” Perry said. “Let’s find some solutions.”
Senators said they are willing to work with the energy secretary as well.
“We don’t want to see massive disruptions in good projects,” Feinstein said.
On Wednesday, senators pointed out some discrepancies between Perry’s statements while touring DOE facilities and the budget request he was defending during the Wednesday hearing. Feinstein said one statement he made in Oak Ridge related to creating jobs and wealth suggested the two of them agreed on the importance of the labs to American innovation and competitiveness.
But, “the budget request you’re defending doesn’t agree with this,” Feinstein said. “That’s a big problem, and we need to square it off.”
The budget request for DOE for fiscal year 2018 is $28 billion. That would be a decrease of about $2.9 billion below what Congress provided in the fiscal year 2017 Energy and Water Appropriations bill, according to Alexander.
In May, he said, Congress provided a record amount of funding for Department of Energy research programs in fiscal year 2017, including roughly $5.4 billion for the Office of Science, which funds national laboratories. (That’s compared to the $4.5 billion proposed for the Office of Science in the fiscal year 2018 budget request.) Congress funded ARPA-E at $306 million in fiscal year 2017, Alexander said.
“This government-sponsored research is spurring investment in the private sector,” Alexander said. “Our new president talks about making America great, and I think a central part of making America great is to use the secret weapons of our research universities and national laboratories. That’s why I’ve supported doubling energy research, and I intend to continue to do that.”
Alexander said the federal government today spends about $5 billion on energy research.
“There is no reason that we cannot afford to double energy research,” Alexander said. “One way to responsibly and conservatively pay for doubling energy research is to stop spending money on subsidies for mature technologies and spend that money instead on research. We cannot lose the technological advantages we have gained through our country’s investment in research and development.”
Supporting government-sponsored basic research is one of the most important things the United States can do to encourage innovation, help the free enterprise system create good jobs, and make America competitive in a global economy, Alexander said.
The senator said innovative energy research at Oak Ridge National Laboratory has led to thousands of high-tech jobs and higher family incomes. The United States is “heading in the right direction” on federally sponsored energy research, he said, increasing investment in both basic energy research and high-potential, high-impact energy technologies at ARPA-E.
Feinstein said the national laboratories foster new discovery and then build on them by identifying possible uses and collaborating with inventors and industry to develop new products.
“All of this is decimated by this budget request,” she said.
Alexander said research funding for DOE laboratories has produced technologies that have been used for:
- unconventional natural gas development,
- 3D printing,
- nuclear imaging devices used for medical diagnosis,
- MRI scanners,
- optical digital recording technology used to make DVDs,
- batteries and energy storage systems for cars and trucks and the electric grid,
- precision detectors, and
Legislators have to be fiscally responsible, but “the United States faces a choice between falling further behind competitors like China, or advancing technologies that can make us safer and more competitive,” Alexander said. In a speech last week, he said the United States could fall behind China in total research and development spending by the mid-2020s.
“The Department of Energy’s research programs have made the United States a world leader in science and technology, and these programs will help the United States maintain its brainpower advantage to remain competitive at a time when other countries are investing heavily in research,” Alexander said in prepared remarks Wednesday.
More information will be added as it becomes available.
You can watch the 2.5-hour video from the Senate budget hearing on Wednesday here.
You can see a DOE budget request fact sheet for fiscal year 2018 here.
You can see DOE’s budget request justification for fiscal year 2018 with links to more information here.
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