Chemical engineer Franklin "Lynn" Orr (left) and physicist Marc Kastner (right).

Chemical engineer Franklin "Lynn" Orr (left) and physicist Marc Kastner (right).

(Left to right) Stanford University; Massachusetts Institute of Technology

U.S. Senate approves new DOE science undersecretary

After a yearlong wait, Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz is one step closer to having his science leadership team in place at the Department of Energy (DOE).

This morning, the U.S. Senate confirmed chemical engineer Franklin "Lynn" Orr, a professor and administrator at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, to fill the new position of undersecretary for science and energy. Tomorrow, the Senate is expected to make physicist Ellen Williams, the former chief scientist at energy giant BP and a longtime professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, the second head of DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E).

The fate of the researcher Moniz wants to lead DOE’s Office of Science remains unclear, however. That’s because there is no vote scheduled on the nomination of physicist Marc Kastner of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

The White House nominated all three researchers for the DOE jobs in November 2013, and all received glowing reviews at subsequent Senate confirmation hearings. But lawmakers have been slow to act on the nominations for a variety of reasons, including partisan squabbling over unrelated issues.

Moniz welcomed today’s confirmation of Orr on a voice vote. “I look forward to working closely with Lynn to shape the nation’s clean energy agenda, and to sustain American leadership in science,” Moniz said in a statement. Orr’s job, which Moniz created last year as part of a reorganization of DOE’s top leadership, involves overseeing all of DOE’s science research programs, including 10 national laboratories that do not work on nuclear weapons.

Orr, 67, would be the first person to occupy the new undersecretary slot, which Moniz created after a number of groups recommended revamping DOE’s management structure. In addition to science, it oversees fossil, nuclear, and renewable energy research programs and electrical grid and technology transfer issues. Orr had worked at Stanford since 1985 and directed its Precourt Institute for Energy since 2009.

Assuming Williams is confirmed tomorrow, she would succeed Arunava Majumdar, who left ARPA-E in June 2012. The fledgling agency ARPA-E spends roughly $230 million annually on high-risk but potentially high-reward efforts to commercialize new energy technologies.

Senate leaders have given no hint as to when the body might vote on the nomination of Kastner to lead DOE’s Office of Science, which oversees a $4.6 billion research portfolio. But research groups are pushing for action. In a 25 November letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D–NV), the Energy Sciences Coalition, an alliance of science, university, and industry groups, urged Kastner’s confirmation, calling the move “vital to the direction and oversight of the important scientific and energy research.”

If Congress doesn’t act before it adjourns later this month, the White House would have to resubmit Kastner’s nomination next year. Of course, that’s assuming he still wants the job.