Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Energy push spurs shift in U.S. science

Carbon-fiber researchers, above, at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, which has jump-started work on biofuels and magnetic-fusion technology.

By GAUTAM NAIK

OAK RIDGE, Tenn. -- The Obama administration's push to solve the nation's energy problems, a massive federal program that rivals the Manhattan Project, is spurring a once-in-a-generation shift in U.S. science.

The government's multibillion-dollar push into energy research is reinvigorating 17 giant U.S.-funded research facilities, from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory here to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California. After many years of flat budgets, these labs are ramping up to develop new electricity sources, trying to build more-efficient cars and addressing climate change.

In fiscal 2009, the Obama administration increased the funding by 18%, to $4.76 billion, to the Department of Energy's Office of Science, which oversees 10 national labs and funds research at another seven. The office will receive $1.6 billion in government stimulus spending, as well, much of which it will also channel to these laboratories.

The Office of Science estimates its bigger budget allowed it to create nearly 1,400 research jobs at the 10 labs it oversees in the fiscal year ending in September, up 11% from the previous year's staffing levels. It estimates it created another 1,400 science jobs at universities. In addition, it says, funds from the Obama administration's stimulus package created hundreds more government lab jobs. As a result, the balance of U.S. science is shading a few degrees -- away from the pure research typically practiced at universities, and toward applied science.

These efforts mark a third wave of spending at national labs such as Oak Ridge, a vast complex of woods and research facilities not far from Knoxville, Tenn. Oak Ridge was one of three labs set up to help build the atomic bomb during World War II. It boomed again during America's energy-independence push in the 1970s.

Oak Ridge plans to increase its staff by 25%, or 800 positions, over the next 18 months -- even as its neighbor, the University of Tennessee, has lost state funding and pared back faculty searches. …

Energy Push Spurs Shift in U.S. Science

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