March 29, 2013 - Department of Energy

The American Society for Microbiology (ASM) is pleased to submit the following testimony on the Fiscal Year (FY) 2014 appropriation for the Department of Energy (DOE) science and research programs. The ASM is the largest single life science organization in the world with more than 37,000 members. The ASM mission is to enhance the science of microbiology, to gain a better understanding of life processes, and to promote the application of this knowledge for improved health and environmental well-being.

The DOE Office of Science is the lead federal agency supporting research and development (R&D) in energy, a field rich with innovation possibilities and economic significance. The Office of Science manages a portfolio through six program offices: Advanced Scientific Computing Research, Basic Energy Sciences, Biological and Environmental Research, Fusion Energy Sciences, High Energy Physics, and Nuclear Physics. The Office of Science directly finances both DOE and non-DOE R&D projects, while operating unique federal facilities also made available to extramural scientists and engineers.

The ASM is concerned that budget cut backs will negatively impact Office of Science programs that clearly contribute to US global competitiveness in science and technology. Although the specific effects of sequestration mandated cuts are still uncertain, the DOE anticipates a $215 million decrease for the Office of Science in FY 2013.

Both academia and industry in the United States depend upon funding and facilities available through the Office of Science. For decades, it has been the dominant federal sponsor of physical sciences research, while also supporting advances in computer science, materials science, mathematics, biological and environmental science, nanotechnology, and engineering. DOE grants and contracts support researchers and their students at more than 300 US colleges and universities. Funding cuts will impact all scientific users of DOE facilities in addition to the probable reductions in both the size and number of extramural grants awarded. DOE has also predicted that sequestration would cause schedule delays and increased costs for planned new user facilities. Collectively, these declining resources negatively impact the training of the Nation’s future R&D workforce.

DOE Funding Expands R&D Enterprise and Supports Innovation
In FY 2013 the DOE’s Office of Science was slated for increased funding to support physical sciences and engineering, guided by strategies to enhance US capabilities under the America COMPETES Act and the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act. The final Office of Science funding level still fell far short of the doubling pace of increases established by the America COMPETES Act. Federal R&D expenditures are far sighted investments in innovation and ultimately in US economic vitality. Although the United States today, remains the world’s single largest R&D performer, the Nation’s R&D growth has slowed and decreased in recent years, especially when compared to growth in other nations. Under the current DOE Strategic Plan, the agency’s priority goals include: “maintaining a vibrant US effort in science and engineering as a cornerstone of our economic prosperity, with clear leadership in strategic areas.”  

Last November, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) released its report on the future of the US research enterprise. Among its conclusions was that the US is “unique in the world in the range and quality of its Federal and National Laboratories” and that “the three pillars of the US research enterprise are its research universities, its National Laboratories, and industry's substantial commitment to basic and applied research.” The DOE’s national laboratories are integral to R&D innovation and economic success. The Office of Science manages 10 of the 17 DOE laboratories in this country, utilized each year by more than 25,000 non-DOE scientists nationwide.

In 2012, updates to the DOE’s strategic plan specifically addressed the importance of Office of Science managed facilities: “prioritization of scientific facilities to ensure optimal benefit from Federal investments….By September 30, 2013, formulate a 10-year prioritization of scientific facilities across the Office of Science based on (1) the ability of the facility to contribute to world-leading science, (2) the readiness of the facility for construction, and (3) an estimated construction and operations cost of the facility.” Many Office of Science facilities host one of a kind, unique and difficult to access equipment; often too expensive to construct and operate elsewhere. The DOE points to the example of the pharmaceutical industry’s use of Argonne National Laboratory’s Advanced Photon Source to rapidly screen the molecular structure of candidates for novel drug design. The computing facility at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory recently screened 2 million different drug compounds against a targeted receptor in less than two days, using 3D biological simulations at a fraction of the cost and time typically required.  

DOE sponsored discoveries have evolved into valuable commercial products and processes through the agency’s emphasis on technology transfer (T2) to the private sector. In 2012, DOE researchers won 36 of the 100 awards announced each year by R&D Magazine for the most outstanding technology advances with commercial potential. Since competition began in 1962, DOE national labs have won more than 800 awards. T2 mechanisms like patent licensing and cooperative research and development agreements (CRADAs) have built strong collaborations among the Office of Science, other federal entities, and US industry. Annual T2 performance metrics underscore DOE’s importance to the US research enterprise: in FY 2010, 697 active CRADAs; 1,616 new inventions disclosed and 480 patents issued; 6,224 licenses granted for using DOE inventions or other intellectual property; and about $41 million in licensing income and $25 million in royalties.

In 2012, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory licensed its microbial detection array technology to a company that supplies DNA microarrays and instruments, for eventual commercialization and sale to food safety professionals, law enforcement, medical professionals and others. The Lawrence Livermore Microbial Detection Array (LLMDA) technology can detect within 24 hours, more than 2,200 viruses and 900 bacteria currently among its probe array, which will be updated periodically. In February, DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy (ARPA-E) announced 17 of its projects have attracted more than $450 million in private sector funding after ARPA-E’s initial investment of approximately $70 million. Twelve have been leveraged to form new companies, and at least 10 have partnered with other government agencies for additional investment. ARPA-E was created under the America COMPETES Act, receiving its initial funding in 2009. The ARPA-E projects with current private sector investments include engineering bacteria for efficient fuel production and developing electrofuels; or liquid fuel derived from renewable electricity and bacteria.

DOE Funding Promotes Biological Sciences and Sustainable Energy
Within the Office of Science, the Biological and Environmental Research program funds cutting edge studies in environmental contaminants, biofuels, genomics and cross disciplinary research integrating biological and physical sciences. The ASM is particularly interested in BER’s broad utilization of microorganisms, including redesigning microbes for sustainable fuel production and optimal contaminant bioremediation. We recognize the invaluable contributions from BER’s Genomic Sciences Program and the DOE Joint Genome Institute (JGI), ambitious efforts of notable benefit to understanding the biological sciences that clearly justify strong funding in FY 2014 and beyond. Previous investments have generated a long list of results, including these recent examples: 

  • University scientists used X-ray crystallography to discover the structure of the regulator inside tuberculosis bacteria that control the pathogen’s efflux pump rendering the pathogens resistant to drugs.
  • DOE scientists determined the genetic sequence of a group of microbes called SR1 bacteria that have not been cultivated in the laboratory, discovering that the bacteria employ a unique genetic code; human oral SR1 bacteria are elevated in the oral infection periodontitis.
  • Scientists studying bacterial RNA-guided cleavage of foreign DNA have described a new approach to editing microbial genomes, a type of “programmable DNA scissors” that has promising R&D applications through new biofuels and therapeutic drugs.
  • Scientists at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory demonstrated for the first time that a cyanobacterium can produce hydrogen and oxygen simultaneously and steadily for at least 100 hours, potentially important to commercial hydrogen production.
  • DOE chemists will use high-throughput technologies developed at Los Alamos National Laboratory to screen beef samples for shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli (STEC), during a three-year project focusing on the early detection of STEC at all levels of the US beef production chain.

DOE programs like BER and ARPA-E are leading the nation’s R&D on renewable energy sources. In 2012, DOE joined with the Department of Agriculture (USDA) in distributing $41 million among thirteen new biomass R&D projects aimed toward sustainable biofuel production, in addition to other funding for biomass genomics to improve biofuel feedstocks. The joint sponsorship is part of a much larger DOE initiative with USDA to increase US biofuels. JGI researchers recently sequenced the genomes of eleven strains of a group of bacteria called actinobacteria, which produce cellulose degrading enzymes of interest to the biotechnology and biofuels industries and identified eight cellulolytic species not previously known to degrade cellulose biomass. DOE scientists also described a unique molecular transporter mechanism to deliver molecules into algal cells, pointing the way to engineering algae that synthesize biofuels, vaccines, and other compounds. At DOE’s Joint BioEnergy Institute, researchers identified a tropical rainforest microbe that can survive high concentrations of ionic liquid used to dissolve cellulosic biomass in biofuel production, while others developed a new synthetic biology technique, dynamic sensor regulator system, which detects metabolic change and controls gene expression in microbes during biofuel production, increasing output.

The ASM urges Congress to fund the Department of Energy’s Office of Science at the highest possible level in FY 2014. The DOE Office of Science programs enhance United States competitiveness through fundamental research and advanced scientific breakthroughs that revolutionize the Nation’s approach to challenging and ongoing, energy and environment challenges.

The ASM appreciates the opportunity to provide written testimony and would be pleased to assist the Subcommittee as it considers the FY 2014 appropriation for the DOE.