Pat Dehmer

Pat Dehmer at the National Science Bowl in Washington, D.C., in 2013.

Jack Dempsey/DOE Office of Science

Patricia Dehmer, guiding force behind Department of Energy science, to retire

It's not often that the retirement of a federal bureaucrat meets with an effusion of regret that she’s leaving and praise for her soon-to-be-missed talents. But by many accounts Patricia Dehmer is no ordinary bureaucrat. So when Dehmer, 71, announced last week that she would step down on 10 November after 9 years as deputy director for science programs in the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) $5.35 billion Office of Science in Washington, D.C., many observers were eager to sing her praises and lament her coming departure.

“It’s an enormous loss, not just for Department of Energy, but for the whole scientific community,” says William Madia, vice president at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, for DOE’s neighboring SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, which the university manages. “The question I’ve been getting is, ‘Oh my god, what do we do now?’” Leland Cogliani, a consultant with Lewis-Burke Associates LLC, in Washington, D.C., who served on the staff of the Senate appropriations committee from 2010 to 2014, says Dehmer “was one of the best. … It’s rare when somebody of her level leaves and it causes such a reaction across the research community.”

“The four-paw pounce”

Dehmer, a chemist, worked for 23 years at Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont, Illinois, before becoming in 1995 the Office of Science’s associate director for the basic energy sciences (BES) program, which supports chemistry, materials science, condensed matter physics, and related fields. In 2007, she became deputy director to oversee BES and the office’s five other programs: advanced scientific computing research, biological and environmental research, fusion energy sciences, high energy physics, and nuclear physics. Over the next 9 years, Dehmer also served for a total of 3 years as acting director of the Office of Science when no director had been confirmed by the Senate, including a 32-month stretch before the Senate confirmed Cherry Murray as director this past December.

Quiet and reserved, Dehmer projects extreme professionalism. But those who have worked with her say she’s approachable and has a dry sense of humor. “I found her very warm and human,” says Persis Drell, dean of engineering at Stanford, who was the director of SLAC from 2007 to 2011. “I always felt she supported me.”

The United States’s single biggest funder of the physical sciences, the Office of Science builds and runs many of the nation’s large scientific user facilities. Under Dehmer it completed, started, or upgraded several: a $420 million x-ray laser (the world’s first) completed at SLAC in 2009; a $912 million x-ray synchrotron at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York, completed in 2014; a $338 million upgrade to the electron accelerator at Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility in Newport News, Virginia, to be completed next year; and a $730 million particle accelerator for nuclear physics at Michigan State University in East Lansing, to be completed in 2021. Dehmer also oversaw the construction of five nanoscience centers at DOE’s national labs.

Dehmer has a deep understanding of the myriad factors involved in seeing a large project through, Madia says. “It’s way more than just having a good idea,” he says. “It’s a multifaceted analysis that she does in her head organically.” Dehmer keeps projects on track by holding people to high standards, he says. “One of her favorite expressions is the four-paw pounce,” he says. “Take her a weak idea and you’ll get the four-paw pounce.”

The character of DOE research also reflects Dehmer’s touch. As associate director of BES she initiated a series of seminars called the Basic Research Needs workshops to identify the problems in basic science whose solutions would be key to pursuing DOE’s larger mission. From the reports these meetings produced sprung DOE’s Energy Frontier Research Centers, the 36 collaborative centers at labs and universities around the country that each focus on a particular basic science question. That approach is now being taken by other programs in the Office of Science, too. “Overall, as a style, I have tried to be bold in making program decisions without being reckless,” Dehmer says.

Above all, Dehmer has strategic vision, says Stanford’s Drell. A prime example, she says, is SLAC’s x-ray laser, the Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS), which uses the lab’s famous electron accelerator to generate the laser beam. It was conceived as a $90 million project just to demonstrate the technique. But with SLAC’s traditional program in high-energy physics winding down, Dehmer decided to take chance on building a whole new type of x-ray facility for materials science, structural biology, and other fields. “She saw the long-term future when the lab didn’t see it for itself,” Drell says. LCLS has been so successful that it is already undergoing a $965 million expansion.

Favored children?

Some researchers have complained that Dehmer favors some programs over others. For instance, “She wasn’t shy about saying fusion was her lowest priority,” Cogliani says. However, he and others say Dehmer based those preferences on performance of the programs themselves. “To the extent that Pat has favorite children it tends to be the children who perform well,” says Thom Mason, director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. “If you struggle you’re going to get a pretty hard scrub with a wire brush before you get a second chance.”

Self-discipline wins over Dehmer, too, Cogliani says. A few years ago DOE’s high energy physics program was fragmented, as physicists at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) in Batavia, Illinois, hoped to build a new neutrino experiment that many physicists said wasn’t big enough to do exciting work. Meanwhile, other physicists wanted to push to build an even more expensive international particle smasher. But in 2014, high energy physicists pulled together to write a strategic plan that makes the neutrino experiment the center piece for the future of U.S. particle physics, but internationalizes it to make it bigger. With a solid plan in place, Dehmer “is now our biggest supporter,” says Cogliani, who represents Fermilab in Washington, D.C.

Dehmer has also played a role in quietly improving workforce diversity at the Office of Science. For example, two of the six associate directors for the research programs are women—Harriet Kung in BES and Sharlene Weatherwax in the biological and environmental research program. “I believe that a diverse workforce is more robust, more creative, and more welcoming to the community of scientists that we serve,” Dehmer says. “And so do my colleagues.”

But now, Dehmer says, it’s time to move on, as staying would mean making a long-term commitment to the next administration. “There are other things I’d like to do,” she says. “There has to be a life beyond DOE.” She didn’t share any explicit plans, however and acknowledged that “work has been my hobby for the last 45 years.”

Taking over for her will be Steve Binkley, currently associate director for advanced scientific computing research, who has a long record at DOE. “He has a broad view across all of the programs,” Mason says, “which will be very beneficial because there will be less of a learning curve going into the job.”