Congress Goes Easy on Two Science Agency Nominees

The nominees to head the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and the new Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) at the Department of Energy breezed through their joint Senate confirmation hearing this morning. But the 1-hour hearing gave Marcia McNutt at USGS and Arun Majumdar at ARPA-E a chance to raise the lid on some issues they are likely to tackle once each is approved—and no opposition to either nominee is expected—and sworn into office.

Most of the questions to McNutt, a marine geophysicist who spent 12 years as CEO of the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Research Institution (MBARI) after being on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology faculty for 15 years, involved the USGS's role in monitoring the nation's water resources, including efforts to document the impacts of climate change and establish the country's offshore claims out to the 200-mile limit. McNutt also talked about her hopes to bolster the agency's capacity to do underwater mapping, something that MBARI has pioneered with autonomous vehicles. Her focus on marine issues was such that, at one point, she felt compelled to assure the chairman of the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Senator Jeff Bingaman (D–NM), and his colleagues that "despite my interest in the oceans, I recognize that we live and depend upon the land, and I will not ignore the land."

The panel had fewer questions for Majumdar, a mechanical engineer from academia who led the energy efficiency innovation program at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory before being tapped to help DOE develop the technologies needed to move the nation toward a low-carbon economy. He responded to gentle questioning about his plans to manage an agency that because of its mandate to fund high-risk, high-reward projects is destined to run more failures than successes. "Our aim is to learn from our failures or get around them," he said. Short-term projects might be able to fill the gaps in industry's ability to adapt a particular technology, he said, while solving fundamental problems like turning sunlight into fuel will take much longer.  
ARPA-E has been given $400 million in start-up money but does not yet have an annual budget after legislators deleted a $10 million request for 2010 in a DOE spending bill awaiting final passage. After the hearing, Bingaman told ScienceInsider he was confident that the Obama Administration would propose a healthy budget for the agency in its 2011 budget request, due out in February. "I don't know the right number, but I would assume that it'll be in the hundreds [of millions of dollars]," Bingaman said.