The Department of Energy's Office of Science Uses a Multilayered Process for Prioritizing Research

GAO-12-410R Published: Feb 24, 2012. Publicly Released: Feb 24, 2012.
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What GAO Found

Science establishes research priorities within and across its six core interdisciplinary research programs, which include a wide variety of research ranging from biology to particle physics. However, Science does not explicitly rank these programs in terms of priority. The office currently prioritizes research that aligns with the Secretary of Energy’s interest in fostering the development of clean energy technologies. For example, Science supports research in materials sciences, which informs technology development of batteries and fuels cells. According to Science’s Deputy Director for Science Programs, the office remains committed to all of its research programs and, in the case of stable or declining budgets, does not intend to limit funding reductions to certain programs. Science formalizes priorities annually through the budget formulation process.

With input from program management, the Director of the Office of Science reconciles priorities across programs and develops a Science-wide budget request that culminates in the President’s budget request to Congress each February. The budget formulation process provides an annual opportunity for formalizing priorities, but Science develops priorities on an ongoing basis through the continuous evaluation of evolving scientific knowledge and other contextual factors. These factors include the current priorities of Congress and the administration, the extended time frames associated with conducting basic research, the need to ensure that existing and planned facilities meet current and future research needs, and past and current project performance.

Science uses a variety of formal and informal mechanisms to coordinate with other DOE entities and other agencies that fund basic research, including the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the Department of Defense (DOD), according to DOE officials. For example, formal mechanisms include partnerships and joint projects with other agencies, while informal mechanisms include interaction among program managers and their counterparts within and outside of DOE. These formal and informal mechanisms are used by DOE officials to identify and mitigate areas of duplication, overlap, and fragmentation in establishing and implementing research efforts.

Why GAO Did This Study

Scientific and technological innovation is critical to the long-term economic competitiveness and prosperity of the United States. In 2006, the President introduced the American Competitiveness Initiative to address the nation’s position as a global leader in scientific discovery and innovation. Shortly thereafter, Congress passed the America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science Act (America COMPETES Act) of 2007 with the overall goal of increasing federal investment in scientific research. Congress reauthorized this legislation on January 4, 2011.

With a budget of nearly $5 billion in fiscal year 2011, the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Science (Science) has historically been the nation’s single largest funding source for basic research in the physical sciences, energy sciences, advanced scientific computing, and other fields. Science and its predecessor agency, the Office of Energy Research, have long served the nation in the quest for scientific knowledge and innovation. From the construction of particle accelerators—long tunnels where subatomic particles collide with targets at nearly the speed of light—to the design and launch of a satellite telescope that reveals stellar explosions in the deepest parts of space, projects overseen by Science have broadened our understanding of the cosmos and of the fundamental components of life on Earth.

In his fiscal year 2007 budget proposal, the President requested an increase in Science’s annual appropriation, which was part of an effort to double Science’s funding in 10 years under the goals of the American Competitiveness Initiative and the America COMPETES Act. However, policy decisions made in response to the current budget environment have since shifted Science’s funding trajectory away from the target of doubling funding by fiscal year 2016. As a result, Science will be confronted with complex decisions in selecting research activities that are most worthy of resources.

Congress asked us to review how Science determines what research to pursue. Our objectives were to describe (1) Science’s research priorities and how those priorities were established and (2) how, if at all, Science coordinates with other federal agencies to identify and mitigate potential areas of duplication, overlap, and fragmentation in establishing and implementing research efforts.

For more information, contact Frank Rusco at (202) 512-3841 or or Melissa Emrey-Arras at (202) 512-6806 or

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