Congress vets energy-science czar

US Department of Energy undersecretary Steven Koonin has Senate confirmation hearing

Steven Koonin Credit: Caltech

In the early 1970s, Tom Tombrello, a physics professor at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, was surprised by an undergraduate's solution to a homework assignment — a novel approach to a problem involving models of the atom. "Which one of you is Mr Koonin," Tombrello asked. A kid from Brooklyn raised his hand.

"Mr Koonin, I think this might be publishable," said Tombrello. "Steve stood out among his peers," he now recalls. "And he still stands out."

On Thursday, Koonin was again standing out, as the sole, slightly rumpled physicist among a collection of scientists being confirmed by US Senators for positions at the Department of Energy (DOE), under Nobel prize-winning energy secretary Steven Chu.

Koonin, former provost of Caltech and more recently chief scientist for oil giant BP, appears headed for confirmation as undersecretary for science after an uneventful hearing, poorly attended by the Senate energy committee.

The undersecretary for science is the energy secretary's chief scientific adviser and also oversees basic research performed at the ten national laboratories within the DOE's Office of Science.

Doing deals

Koonin is no stranger to the DOE labs or to Chu. At BP, he struck a deal with Chu, then head of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, to pursue biofuel research. They established a joint Energy Biosciences Institute with $500 million from BP, spread over a decade.

At the confirmation hearing, he said that similar arrangements would be needed to create energy-related jobs and cut greenhouse gas emissions: "Novel forms of public–private and international partnerships will be required to address these global societal problems." Such deals need not be confined to the renewable energy arena, Tombrello points out, suggesting that labs with weapons expertise might partner with the commercial nuclear energy industry.

Despite being a theoretical physicist, Koonin has had plenty of interactions with the DOE weapons complex. He has served as steering committee chair for JASON, the semi-secret, self-selecting committee of scientists who advise the government on defence matters.

In his new position, he will have more help than his predecessor, Raymond Orbach, who inhabited two roles at once: director of the Office of Science as well as undersecretary for science — a superior position created by Congress in 2005. Last week, the White House nominated William Brinkman, a physicist at Princeton University in New Jersey, to work for Koonin as director of the Office of Science. Brinkman directed research at Bell Labs in New Jersey for many years, including the period in the 1970s when Chu did the atom-cooling research that won him the Nobel.

Koonin will also work with Kristina Johnson, an electrical engineer and former provost of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. She is nominated as undersecretary for energy, responsible for applying energy technologies, and was also in the 23 April confirmation hearing.

The point, says Orbach, is to speed the journey from basic to applied energy research. "It's going to work very well," he says. Koonin is also likely to supervise ARPA-E, an advanced energy research agency, modelled after one in the Department of Defense, that was given funding in the emergency stimulus legislation passed in February.

The $4.8 billion controlled by Koonin and Brinkman pales next to Johnson's budget. She will oversee the vast majority of the nearly $40 billion given to the Department of Energy in the stimulus package. Before Koonin and Johnson can begin work, they must be voted on by the entire Senate, which could happen as early as next week.

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Hand, E. Congress vets energy-science czar. Nature (2009).

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