Department of Energy - FY 1998 Testimony

This testimony was submitted to both the House and Senate Energy and Water Development Subcommittees on Appropriations on March 31, 1997.

The American Society for Microbiology (ASM), the largest single life science organization in the world, comprising more than 42,000 members, appreciates the opportunity to provide written testimony in support of the Department of Energy's research programs.

The ASM is made up of scientists who work throughout academic, governmental and industrial institutions worldwide. Microbiologists are involved in research on problems related to energy, the environment and human and animal health. The mission of ASM is to enhance the science of microbiology, to gain a better understanding of basic life processes, and to promote the application of this knowledge for improved health, and for economic and environmental well being.

The Administration's proposed budget for FY 1998 requests $19.2 billion for the DOE overall. Included in that request is $2.5 billion for programs supported by the Office of Energy Research (OER). The following testimony will highlight research supported by the Division of Energy Biosciences in the Office of Basic Energy Sciences (BES), and the Health and Environmental Research Programs (OHER) within the OER as well as programs in the Office of Industrial Technologies, such as Energy Efficiency and Renewables (EE). Federal investment in these programs today will help to maintain future U.S. scientific leadership.

The ASM strongly supports the inclusion of basic science programs within the DOE. While relatively small in terms of the overall DOE appropriation, these programs produce important fundamental discoveries that provide the foundation for subsequent developments in biotechnology related to energy and the environment.

Many of the DOE scientific research programs share the goal of producing and conserving energy in environmentally responsible ays. Areas of research include basic research projects in microbiology as well as extensive development of microbiological systems to produce alternative fuels and chemicals, to recover fossil fuels, to improve the refinement process of fossil fuels, to remediate environmental problems and to reduce wastes and pollution.

It is imperative for the United States to maintain a strong science budget that supports basic research. Although the benefits from basic research are not always immediately obvious, the United States must invest in both basic and applied science, which are interdependent, as well as in programs that bridge the gap between the two.

The Administration's requested funding level for the Office of Basic Energy Sciences is $661.2 million for FY 1998. This funding level is an $11.5 million increase over last year. BES funds important microbiological basic research programs through the Energy Biosciences Division. In fact, about one fifth of all BES funds go directly to support research at academic institutions across the nation. For FY 1998, the President's budget proposal has level funded the Energy Biosciences Division within the BES at a level of about $26 million. This program focuses on research in both microbiological and plant sciences. The exciting research supported by DOE's Energy Biosciences will lead to new discoveries in producing energy without risking our environment and finding effective methods of cleaning up existing contamination.

The ASM continues to be concerned about the adequacy of funding for basic research supported by the DOE's Energy Biosciences Division. We urge Congress to increase basic research funding for the Energy Biosciences, and at least to offset the effect of inflation. Further erosion of funding for this program will have a deleterious effect on important biotechnology and energy-related research and on the future entry of scientists in this critical area of research.

Important microbiological research is also supported by the Office of Health and Environmental Research through their Biological and Environmental Research Program (BER). The Administration's budget proposal includes $376.7 million for BER in FY 1998, about $5.5 million less than last year's funding level. The BER supports research in the following divisions: Basic Life Sciences, Health Effects, Medical Applications and Biophysical Research, and Environmental Sciences Research. The BER is charged with developing advanced technologies that will improve medical care, public health, and worker safety while achieving a fundamental understanding of several biological and environmental components and processes.

The Administration has proposed $157 million for the Basic Life Sciences subprogram of the BER in FY 1998. The Basic Life Sciences subprogram supports research to learn the molecular structure of important biological molecules to assist in the efficient removal of environmental contaminants. This important program helps to determine the DOE's future biotechnology needs including applications in energy development, use and cleanup.

Within the Basic Life Sciences subprogram is the Human Genome Program (HGP), which is jointly administered by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the DOE. The ultimate goal of the HGP is to decipher all three billion DNA subunits that make up the genetic code within each human cell. The benefits to human health from this program will be unmeasurable. Additionally, the HGP supports two major genome databases available throughout the scientific community. The Genome Data Base at the Johns Hopkins University and the Genome Sequence Data Base in Santa Fe, New Mexico, help to make important discoveries accessible to scientists and they promote wide access to current research results from the biological and environmental sciences. Increased availability and access to information in these data bases are important to the scientific peer review process, and will pave the road to many new discoveries in the future. The Administration included $85.1 million for the HGP in its FY 1998 budget proposal, in addition to the $205.2 million from the NIH. The ASM fully supports this increase.

In 1994, the OHER began the Microbial Genome Program (MGP) as a complement to the DOE Human Genome Program. This program would receive about $7 million for FY 1998, about $2 million more than last year. The MGP is at the cutting edge of microbiological research. Just last year, researchers supported by the MGP announced the complete sequencing of the genome of a methane-producing microbe that lives 8,000 feet deep in ocean thermal vents. This microbe (Methanococcus jannaschii) converts inorganic material into methane. More than two thirds of the genes of this microorganism are radically different from any previously sequenced. This has great significance in terms of understanding microbial evolution and the potential for biotechnological developments based upon novel microbial genomes and metabolic activities. Similar research has discovered other microbes living in other extreme conditions, such as in areas with high levels of radioactivity and the bottom of oil wells.

As scientists learn more about the microorganisms that live in these extreme conditions, they learn more about how to develop newer, cleaner forms of energy and technologies to clean up the waste associated with energy production and consumption. The DOE has installed the necessary peer review and advisory program to the MGP to ensure that the microorganisms selected for sequencing will yield the greatest scientific informational benefits and that the research is of the highest quality. The ASM believes that even greater benefits would be achieved if the program were funded at a level of $10 million and urges this Subcommittee to consider adding funds for an expanded Microbial Genome Project.

The DOE plans to expand its research into microbial diversity, and will begin sequencing the genomes of bioremediative microorganisms. Due to a scientific technique called sequence leveraging, a practice of using previously sequenced microbes to build the sequences of similar non-sequenced microbes, the results of these initiatives will be more readily available to other scientists, through the use of databases. This will aid scientists in their research into new biotechnologies such as bioremediation, a technology which emerged during the Exxon Valdez cleanup as a cost-effective way of eliminating pollutants.

Included in the Administration's FY 1998 budget request is $66.4 million for Environmental Remediation, of which about $28 million is targeted for Bioremediation Research, about $6.8 million more than the FY 1997 funding level. The ASM fully supports this increased funding level and urges Congress to sustain it.

Bioremediation scientists are searching for cost-effective technologies to improve current r emediation methods to clean up DOE's contaminated sites. New research in this area is supported by the Natural and Accelerated Bioremediation Research Program (NABIR) which will lead to new discoveries into reliable methods of bioremediation of metals and radionuclides as well as organic pollutants in soils and groundwater. For FY 1998, the Administration proposed $19 million to fund the NABIR program, this includes funds for the establishment of one or more field research centers and funds for some subsurface exploring. The NABIR program will move into real world field research in 1998 that will determine the practical applications of bioremediation for cost-effective cleanup of pollutants at DOE sites. This is a critical phase of this program. The level of requested funds will permit research at one contaminated field site. The ASM strongly recommends an additional $5 million be allocated to this effort with the aim of ensuring that two field research sites be established that span the breadth of pollution problems faced by the sites managed by the DOE and others.

Other exciting new microbiological research supported by BER, is the Biotechnological Investigations -- Ocean Margin Program (BI-OMP). This program is the second phase of the full Ocean Margin Program, and will look into the effects global change has on marine microbes. The findings from this program will be crucial to understanding the responses of marine biological systems to changes in their environments.

In addition to the Offices of Basic Energy Sciences and Health and Environmental Research, the DOE supports other important microbiological research in the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EE). About $1.8 million of the proposed $15 million for the Hydrogen Program will support research into the production of biohydrogen for use in utility, transportation and industrial applications. Additionally, the transportation biofuels program supports microbiological research into the production of ethanol to reduce the United States' dependency on oil imports. This program is funded at $27.7 million for FY 1997 and is proposed to receive a $12.4 million increase for FY 1998.

The Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy has been known for supporting bridging research such as the Energy Conversion and Utilization Technologies Program (ECUT) and the Advanced Industrial Concepts Division, both of which have been eliminated. Bridging research provides an important stepping stone or a "bridge" that links basic to the applied sciences. Two microbiological EE programs have been eliminated for FY 1998 in the President's budget proposal. Alternative Feedstocks and Bioprocessing have been zeroed out for FY 1998. These programs provide important microbiological research that supports the U.S. paper, chemical, petroleum and agriculture industries. It is important that the DOE continue its commitment to programs that bridge the gap between the basic and applied sciences.

There is an ever growing gap between the basic research programs that can take several decades to build a fundamental science base for energy and environmental development and the final application phases that may only take a few months or years. This gap needs to remain crossable so that basic research can be converted into real world applications. A modest program that manages the bridge between basic research and real world problem solving must receive continuing support.

Finally, the ASM wishes to express continued concern over the proposals to eliminate the Department of Energy and its research programs. Thankfully these proposals have not been successful. While this is a period of budget constraints, the United States must maintain its commitment to develop cost-effective environmentally sound technologies to clean up contaminated sites. Additionally, the DOE's research programs help to keep the United States at the forefront of scientific discovery and competitive in the world marketplace. Japan for example has an aggressive effort to develop hydrogen as an alternate fuel source. The DOE's Hydrogen Program if successful will produce an environmentally friendly fuel that could reverse global warming and revolutionize the automotive and fuels industries while freeing America from dependency on foreign oil. The ASM encourages Congress to maintain its commitment to the Department of Energy research programs to maintain the Unites States' leadership in these vital industries and continue our commitment to a strong basic science program.

Thank you for this opportunity to provide testimony in support of the DOE basic life sciences programs. The ASM hopes that its recommendations will be useful to the Subcommittee. We would be pleased to respond to any questions from the Subcommittee.