DOE Science Positions Move Forward

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Publication date: 
1 May 2009

On April 23, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held an afternoon hearing to consider five nominees for senior positions at the Department of Energy and the Department of Interior. Among the nominees was Steven E. Koonin to be the Under Secretary for Science at the Department of Energy. The hearing went smoothly, with limited questioning of each nominee.  President Obama has also nominated William Brinkman to be the Director of the DOE Office of Science.  Brinkman, now a Senior Research Physicist at Princeton University, will appear before the committee in coming weeks.

In the Bush Administration, Ray Orbach was "dual-hatted," filling both DOE positions. Orbach started his service as the Director of the Office of Science. After legislation was passed establishing the new Under Secretary for Science position, Orbach also held that position.

Committee chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) opened the hearing by saying "I believe the president has chosen well," later exclaiming "I support each of your nominations."  Bingaman declared that he was "very impressed with the scientific credentials" of Koonin, who has served as Chief Scientist at BP for the last five years. Previously, Koonin was a professor of Theoretical Physics years at the California Institute of Technology and then its provost for nine years

Koonin prepared brief written testimony which included his observations on the department's major activities. Selections from this testimony follow:

"The basic research supported by the Office of Science is one of the jewels of the Federal research portfolio. The long tradition of peer-reviewed support for university and national laboratory researchers and forefront user facilities continues to drive advances on many fronts. We are on the cusp of understanding the origin of mass, the nature of most of what’s in the universe, and how quarks and gluons combine to form nuclei. New instrumentation and new information technologies are enabling better understanding of the changing climate and new capabilities to predict, manipulate, and control materials, biological systems, and plasma. The commitments from Congress and the Administration to double support for these activities over the next decade are more than justified.

"In nuclear security, the President has set ambitious goals for reducing the US stockpile of weapons while maintaining confidence in their safety, security, and reliability in the absence of nuclear testing. But these will not be achievable without a robust technical enterprise in the NNSA. The National Nuclear Security Administration’s ongoing Stockpile Stewardship program of simulation, non-nuclear experimentation, and warhead surveillance and refurbishment has been effective for more than a decade, but faces growing challenges in maintaining technical capabilities. Strengthening these capabilities will be essential to achieving the President’s non-proliferation goals.

"In Energy, President Obama has set ambitious goals to enhance energy security and reduce GHG [green house gas] emissions while creating new jobs. Improvements in the technologies to produce, transmit, store, and use energy are essential to meeting these goals. But the scale, duration, cost, and complexity of energy matters pose great challenges. Technical understanding and judgement are important to making the right decisions about which technologies to pursue and how each should be advanced from research and development through demonstration and deployment. Novel forms of public/private and international partnerships will be required to address these global problems. I have pledged to Secretary Chu to work closely with the Under Secretary of Energy on these matters, I am confident that Dr. [Kristina] Johnson [the nominee for Under Secretary of Energy] and I will work well together, should we both be confirmed.

"What might I aspire to accomplish in the position to which I’ve been nominated? As you know, by statue the Under Secretary for Science has the dual responsibilities of overseeing the basic research carried out in the Office of Science, and of serving as the principal scientific advisor to the Secretary. In the former capacity, I would look forward to working with this Committee, Secretary Chu, the Director of the Office of Science, and the broader scientific community to see that the existing and planned incremental funds for basic research are wisely allocated and the programs well-executed. In the latter capacity, I would hope to coordinate and harmonize technical activities across the department, looking for gaps and identifying synergies, bringing the rigor of appropriate peer review, program and project management to all parts of DOE. Indeed, the tone Secretary Chu has already set, and the team he is assembling, are highly conducive to achieving those goals. I would also hope to promote thorough and unbiased technical assessments in all matters facing the Department, as these necessarily underpin all good policy decisions."

Senators were allocated time to ask questions to all five nominees. Among the questions Koonin was asked concerned the collaboration and coordination of the units within the Department of Energy on the very complex issues of energy and climate change. Koonin acknowledged the importance of doing so, describing energy as a unique issue since it affects so many people, adding that “change will only happen if, as we do the science and technology, we pay attention to the economic, political and social dimensions.”

Koonin’s nomination was reported out of the committee yesterday, and is now pending before the full Senate.

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