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Energy secretary ditches science advisers

Independent panel dismissed after nearly 30 years.

Washington DC

The US Secretary of Energy, Samuel Bodman, has decided to disband the Department of Energy's principal independent advisory board on scientific and technical matters.

The Secretary of Energy Advisory Board (SEAB), which has existed in one form or another since 1978, will end after a final meeting this spring. Bodman made the decision about a month ago in a closed-door meeting with senior staff, says department spokesman Craig Stevens.

Some observers say that the decision is another example of the Bush administration's reluctance to accept outside scientific advice (see page 716). “This decision is part of a bigger picture,” says Stephen Dean, president of Fusion Power Associates, a non-profit organization based in Gaithersburg, Maryland, that promotes fusion research. “This administration doesn't want outside advisory groups to tell it what to do.”

“The secretary would rather hear firsthand from the folks in the department.”

But Stevens says that the choice has more to do with the scientific background of Bodman, who is a chemical engineer by training, than a desire to limit scientific advice. “The secretary has an understanding of science and scientific processes,” Stevens says. “He would rather hear firsthand from the folks in the department.” Stevens adds that plenty of direction is provided by the Advanced Energy and American Competitiveness Initiatives, which are intended to boost work on energy and basic research.

Stand alone: President Bush's energy department is headed by chemical engineer Samuel Bodman (left). Credit: D. BRACK/POOL/GETTY IMAGES

The 28-member, politically appointed SEAB is a mix of distinguished scientists, such as Nobel laureate Burton Richter, and business executives, such as former ExxonMobil chairman Lee Raymond. But not all of its reports have been influential, says Mark Marin, a lobbyist with Lewis-Burke Associates in Washington DC. One recent report, on research funding in the department, was incorporated into the president's competitiveness initiative, but a study on laboratory contracting practices was largely ignored.

The panel's most recent report, in July 2005, recommended drastic restructuring of the nation's nuclear-weapons labs (see Nature 436, 316; 2005). The study riled some in Congress, but Stevens denies that this had any influence on the decision to dissolve the board.

The SEAB was not the only group to give scientific advice to the secretary; several boards regularly report on issues such as nuclear physics and energy research. Richter, of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center in Menlo Park, California, says that Bodman can consult whomever he wishes: “The secretary will get his advice where he wants to get his advice.”

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