New climate law also promises a boost for science projects
President Joe Biden signs the Inflation Reduction Act into law on August 16. Standing, from left: Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Rep. James Clyburn (D-SC), Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ), and Rep. Kathy Castor (D-FL). Credit: EPA, via Twitter
Editor’s note: This article is adapted from an 11 August post on FYI, which reports on federal science policy. Both FYI and Physics Today are published by the American Institute of Physics.
Today President Joe Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), a landmark spending and tax reform package that includes the most expansive measures the US has ever implemented to mitigate climate change. The law also bolsters science-facility projects at Department of Energy national labs.
Facing unified Republican opposition, for the past year Democrats negotiated the partisan bill’s contents so as to secure the unanimous support needed within their ranks in the Senate to pass it using Congress’s budget-reconciliation process. The IRA cleared the most crucial hurdle on August 7 with a 51–50 vote in the Senate. The House temporarily returned from recess to approve the measure on Friday.
The law’s climate-related provisions will cost about $370 billion over multiple years and mainly include measures—such as tax incentives and grants—aimed at decarbonizing the economy and boosting resilience against environmental hazards. Within that funding, billions of dollars are allocated for scientific research and technology development, including a one-time $2 billion boost for projects at DOE labs that are not directly related to climate change.
Remnants of Build Back Better
The IRA’s funding for DOE lab projects is far less than the nearly $23 billion the House Science Committee proposed last year to address infrastructure needs across science agencies as part of the more expansive Build Back Better Act. When House Democrats pared back that bill in a bid to secure more support for it, the science infrastructure money was mostly dropped. But some funding for DOE labs was later reinstated by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which is chaired by Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV).
Manchin soon withdrew his support for the Build Back Better Act, halting its progress, and since then he has been the key gatekeeper for any efforts to pass a revised version. Although the IRA is, at Manchin’s insistence, narrowly focused on climate and energy, health care, and tax reform, a fraction of the DOE lab funding he previously advanced still made it into the final version.
All the lab funding in the new law will be appropriated immediately and remain available through fiscal year 2027. The list below breaks down the funding individual DOE program offices will receive; the department has discretion regarding which projects to spend the money on.
High-energy physics ($304 million). The Long-Baseline Neutrino Facility and Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment (LBNF/DUNE) project is a likely candidate to receive a share of the funding, as it has experienced more than $1 billion in cost growth over the past few years. DOE has stretched out the project’s schedule to accommodate the increase; whereas it was once hoped science operations would begin in 2026, the facility is now expected to be ready in the early 2030s. In addition to delaying research opportunities, that outcome would likely leave the project significantly behind Japan’s planned Hyper-Kamiokande experiment in the race to be first to achieve certain key neutrino measurements. The US LBNF/DUNE project director, Chris Mossey, indicated last year that with more funding it would be technically feasible to finish construction up to a few years earlier.
Other high-energy physics projects that could receive funding include the US contributions to the forthcoming luminosity upgrades to the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. At the moment, DOE is aiming to catch up following a shortfall in the project’s appropriation this fiscal year. In addition, the Cosmic Microwave Background Stage 4 project is currently receiving only token support for early planning work.
Nuclear Physics ($217 million). Construction of the Nuclear Physics program’s flagship Electron-Ion Collider (EIC) will ramp up at Brookhaven National Laboratory after the planned shutdown of the lab’s Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) in 2025. The EIC project director, Jim Yeck, recently tested to Congress that the project needs additional funding much sooner to prepare for construction and avoid layoffs of RHIC staff members who have expertise needed for the new collider. Aside from the EIC, the Nuclear Physics program is mulling a ton-scale neutrinoless double-beta decay experiment, but it has not yet provided significant funding for one.
Basic energy sciences ($295 million). DOE’s Basic Energy Sciences program is stewarding a large portfolio of construction projects at its user facilities. One possible candidate for supplementary funding is the Second Target Station project at Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Spallation Neutron Source. The station is expected to cost about $2 billion and would help alleviate a chronic shortage of capacity for neutron-scattering research in the US, but it is still on the back burner. Other projects that might be accelerated include a follow-on upgrade to the nearly completed Linac Coherent Light Source-II facility at SLAC and the build-out of beamlines at Brookhaven’s National Synchrotron Light Source II facility.
Fusion energy sciences ($280 million). The US contribution to the international ITER facility under construction in France is the main project supported by DOE’s Fusion Energy Sciences program. Last year the head of the US project office for ITER, Kathy McCarthy, tested before Congress that the US was running $97 million short of its commitment to the project. The CHIPS and Science Act that was signed into law on 9 August also recommends that Congress significantly increase the annual US contribution going forward. Aside from ITER, the fusion program plans to upgrade SLAC’s Matter in Extreme Conditions end station to increase US capacity for high-intensity laser research. But that project’s funding has been throttled back as DOE deliberates its scope.
Advanced scientific computing ($164 million). DOE is completing installation of exascale computers at Oak Ridge and Argonne National Laboratories, and it is not clear what follow-on projects might qualify for IRA funding within the Advanced Scientific Computing Research program. However, the program is planning to build a facility that will help handle the increasingly large volume of data that DOE science facilities are producing. The CHIPS and Science Act also directs DOE to expand the program’s work on quantum networking infrastructure, recommending an annual budget of $100 million.
Isotope program ($158 million). Oak Ridge plans to construct a Stable Isotope Production and Research Center as well as a Radioisotope Processing Facility to expand domestic production of critical isotopes. Work on the former facility has yet to fully ramp up, and the latter remains in an early design phase. Concerns surrounding isotope supply chains have recently become more urgent because of the war in Ukraine and Russia’s role as a major supplier of both isotopes and uranium used to fuel isotope-production reactors.
Lab infrastructure ($583 million). The IRA includes $133 million for general infrastructure projects at labs overseen by the DOE Office of Science. It also provides $450 million for infrastructure and general plant projects, divided evenly among the DOE Offices of Nuclear Energy, Fossil Energy and Carbon Management, and Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.
Other science and technology efforts
Aside from its support for scientific research, the IRA’s vast array of decarbonization measures includes provisions aimed at encouraging the deployment and commercialization of new technologies. Notably, it multiplies the capacity of DOE’s Loan Programs Office, primarily by authorizing the office, through a temporary program, to guarantee up to $250 billion in loans for energy-infrastructure projects. The law also appropriates more than $5.8 billion for a program at DOE’s new Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations that will support greenhouse gas emissions reduction projects at industrial facilities.
In addition, the IRA aims to encourage the deployment of a new generation of nuclear reactors by appropriating $700 million to expedite the availability of the high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU) fuel that many of those reactors will use. HALEU is uranium enriched so that between 5% and 20% of its weight is composed of the highly fissile uranium-235 isotope. Russia is currently the world’s main HALEU supplier, and even before the invasion of Ukraine, Congress was eager to develop domestic sources.
Within the Department of Transportation, the IRA appropriates $245 million to fund projects relating to the production of sustainable aviation fuel and $47 million for projects related to low-emission aviation technology.
Among its other funds for NOAA, the IRA provides $490 million for climate and weather research and forecasting activities. The law also includes $23.5 million for the US Geological Survey’s 3D Elevation Program, which provides high-resolution topographic data with a variety of uses, including in climate resilience, disaster response, and clean-energy deployment.