House passes energy bill with a boost

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By Roger Snodgrass

In a rare gesture, the House added a special gratuity to a funding bill for the Department of Energy and national science laboratories that passed with a substantial majority Friday.

In the process, they boosted the funds available for Laboratory Directed Research and Development (LDRD) by an extra 1 percent.

“It is wonderfully refreshing to see the house show support for LDRD, which I don’t think we have seen for some time,” said Bob Kraus, deputy director for the Los Alamos LDRD.

“It is incredibly gratifying to find that LDRD is seen as building the science base of the laboratory. That is something that has not been recognized.”

The final vote was an emphatic 320-97 in favor of the overall bill that would, with a few adjustments, continue most current levels of funding through next fiscal year.

During the debate leading up to approval on the House floor, Rep. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., offered an amendment that each laboratory be allowed to dedicate an additional 1 percent of its annual budget to LDRD.

Sandia National Laboratories is in Heinrich’s District.

The amendment passed unanimously, reversing a trend over the last several years during which the House has low-balled LDRD funding, which the Senate and the now-retired Sen. Pete Domenici, then acted to restore.

“These high risk, high reward projects yield cutting edge advancements in science and technology and produce some of our most successful research and development initiatives,” Heinrich said, proposing the amendment on the House floor. LDRD funds are devoted to self-directed research at the laboratories, often funding scientifically creative projects that might otherwise not get funded.

In a brief debate Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen R-N.J., ranking member of the House Appropriation Committee, said he would not oppose the amendment, although he did have some objections.

“Many of us would have liked more money spent on the safety and security of our weapons stockpile but sadly that was not to be,” he said, adding that these types of program often skirt Congressional prerogatives.

“We put a fair amount of work into discussions with committee staff,” Heinrich said in a telephone interview as he returned to Washington Monday. “ I would not have wanted an amendment that would blow up on the floor and embarrass the laboratories.”

He acknowledged that even he was surprised by the unanimous vote.

“We had an open line of communication with the staff and committee members to say, ‘Can we build some consensus that you could live with and that would help these programs,’” he said. “I can’t speak for the members on the committee, but one of the things we’re trying to do is bring a strong voice for the laboratories, with a personal knowledge of how valuable they are.”

Coincidentally, R&D Magazine announced its annual “R&D 100” list on Monday, which included technologies from 18 National Nuclear Security Administration sites. The magazine selects what it considers the best technological advances at universities, private corporations, and government labs around the world.

One of the winners this year was the MagViz project from LANL, a technology that aims to do away with a security bottleneck at airports for screening potentially dangerous liquids.

“R&D 100 winners often have their roots in LDRD,” said LANL’s Kraus, who led the team of researchers in repurposing an advanced brain imaging technology to address detection of explosives at airports.

“The program I was involved in got its start with LDRD, and was picked up by the Department of Homeland Security,” he noted

Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, who represents LANL was among those voting for the amendment and the bill.

“This is an example of how we can work with one another to advocate for our national laboratories,” he said in a prepared statement. “This funding gives our national laboratories increased flexibility to perform groundbreaking research in a variety of fields.”

A Senate version of the energy and water appropriation bill has yet to reach the floor for a vote, and two measures will first have to be reconciled before going to the President for a signature.