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Making Progress

September 17, 2010 - 10:56pm


I spoke yesterday to the newly reconstituted Secretary of Energy Advisory Board (SEAB) -- a group of distinguished science and policy leaders who advise the Secretary and Department leadership. My remarks described efforts to better focus Department of Energy’s technical talents on our energy challenges. Since we scientists work best by directly defining and dealing with the problems we tackle, SEAB’s advice to us is much more valuable than its praise. I therefore offered a candid assessment of both the progress we’ve made and the obstacles we are facing. A lively discussion ensued during which Board members offered some very useful thoughts.

The leadership team knew from the beginning that improving the Department would be a long and difficult journey. The organization we inherited 20 months ago had incredible assets and talent, but lacked clear goals, had disparate offices competing or working in isolation, was a jumble of inefficient processes, and hadn’t always effectively communicated its mission internally or externally.

While our Department of Energy “make over” is by no means finished, we have made significant progress. President Obama and Secretary Chu have articulated clear energy and nuclear security goals. The Under Secretaries have led the definition of science-based programs toward those goals, and Deputy Secretary Poneman is making good progress on streamlining and regularizing Department of Energy operations. As I noted to SEAB, it would be wrong to say that cultural differences, turf issues, and recalcitrance have disappeared from departmental offices. But through budget choices, reform efforts, and a strategic planning process reaching out across the Department, we are slowly coalescing into “one Department of Energy” that is much more effective than the sum of its parts.

For example, we've made progress on strategic investments that move the clean energy economy forward. My Department of Energy colleagues Matt Rogers and Cathy Zoi told SEAB how stimulus funding is being used to advance development and deployment of clean energy technologies, including renewable power generation and batteries for electric vehicles. And I told SEAB about programs like the Energy Frontier Research Centers, the Energy Innovation HUBS, and reinvigoration of tech transfer that all work to make our research more impactful on energy problems. My colleague Arun Majumdar spoke about ARPA-E’s creation and its remarkable progress toward the same end.

Secretary Chu has set clear expectations for a much greater level of cooperation and resource sharing among program offices and labs. Instead of each program office simply funding projects at the labs it directly oversees, programs have been directed to support the research mission wherever it will have the greatest impact. For example, over the past 20 months:

  • The Office of Nuclear Energy awarded its Nuclear Energy Modeling and Simulation Energy Innovation Hub to a team led by Oak Ridge National Laboratory, an Office of Science laboratory.
  • The Office of Science’s Advanced Scientific Computing Research program has announced that it will fund Exascale Co-Design Centers to define hardware architectures, technology, algorithms and software requirements for scientific problems of interest to other DOE office, which are required to co-fund the centers. The work of the Co-Design Centers insures that Science’s future supercomputers are well-suited to DOE target applications.
  • The Office of Environmental Management has begun working with consortium of 5 Science, NNSA and EM laboratories to launch the Advanced Simulation Capability for Environmental Management, a program that will simulate subsurface hydrological-biogeochemical processes in order to better predict the fate and movements of underground contaminants.

As a scientist working in the Administration, I’m energized by the President’s commitments to double the national investment in innovation and to ensure that decisions are based on science rather than politics. Ultimately, however, decoupling Department of Energy’s efforts from politics requires a broad consensus about investing in a clean energy economy. That issue should not be partisan - the economic and environmental drivers for action are simple and compelling. And we ought to be clear-eyed about the need for aggressive action to keep America competitive in a globalized and rapidly developing world.

My SEAB talk noted the great potential for synergies among Department of Energy's incredible assets, starting with its talented and dedicated employees. A top priority for Secretary Chu and our leadership team has been to better marshal that great resource by breaking down stovepipes and creating a sense of teamwork across the Department. Given where we started from, we could not do this instantaneously, but I am encouraged and motivated by the progress we’ve made so far.

I welcome thoughts from readers both inside and outside the Department on how we can accelerate our continuing improvements in DOE programs and operations toward “one Department of Energy.”

Steven Koonin is the Under Secretary of Science.