Rick Perry speaking at a conference

Rick Perry

Gage Skidmore

Ten questions for Rick Perry, Trump's pick for energy secretary

Former Texas Governor Rick Perry goes before the U.S. Senate tomorrow to explain how he would run the Department of Energy (DOE), which manages the nation’s nuclear arsenal, a network of 17 national laboratories, and a vast array of basic and applied energy research programs. Scientists are eager to hear whether the two-time failed Republican presidential candidate has a vision for the $30-billion-a-year agency, which he once famously said should be eliminated, and where energy fits into the overall agenda of the man who nominated him, President-elect Donald Trump.

Members of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources have their own concerns to raise with Perry. Democrats will no doubt press him on whether he believes reducing carbon emissions is important, whereas Republicans will likely invite him to discuss how continued drilling for fossil fuels will help the country achieve energy independence. Senators may also ask him about the international agreement to limit Iran’s nuclear weapons program, which Trump has labeled one of the worst deals in history.

But many issues will probably not be broached. Here are 10 questions that scientists might want to ask Perry if they were sitting in the hearing room, along with a brief explanation of each topic.

What is the role of science at DOE?

Recent presidents from both parties have used science as a way to connect DOE's myriad activities, both administratively and by appointing Cabinet secretaries with advanced science and engineering degrees. Perry doesn’t have that kind of training. But if confirmed he will play a role in picking the people who run DOE’s research programs. One key decision: finding a successor to Franklin Orr, the outgoing undersecretary for science and energy.

What areas do you plan to emphasize within DOE’s Office of Science?

The agency's $5.1 billion Office of Science is the single largest funder of basic research in the physical sciences in the federal government. It is also the nation's leading builder of large scientific facilities; the 10 labs funded by the office host x-ray synchrotrons, neutron sources, atom smashers, and other user facilities. These machines serve thousands of scientists from universities, industry, and other federal research agencies in fields ranging from particle physics to structural biology.

An early indication of priorities may be Perry’s choice of a successor to physicist Cherry Murray to manage the office’s six research programs. The Obama administration emphasized advanced computing and materials for energy in the basic energy sciences’ program, and biofuels in the environmental research program; House of Representatives Republicans have tried repeatedly to cut climate research within that program. For many researchers, Trump’s first budget request, for the 2018 fiscal year beginning next fall, will be a key indicator of which way the wind is blowing.

How will you decide whether the United States should remain in the ITER fusion energy project?

ITER is a multinational project to prove that generating energy by fusing hydrogen isotopes together at temperatures exceeding those in the center of the sun is scientifically feasible. But the project, currently under construction in southern France, is at least a decade behind schedule and could cost three times original estimates.

If a U.S. domestic project were similarly so far out of control, Congress or the White House likely would have killed it long ago. But the United States has only a 9% stake in ITER—matched by China, India, Japan, Russia, and South Korea—whereas the European Union, as host, is footing 45% of the bill and is determined to see it through.

Attitudes in Congress range from enthusiastic flag waving to vocal opposition. The Senate has repeatedly put forward budgets that zero out ITER, while the House continues the back it. The annual compromise has been to provide only just enough money to remain a partner; but that has squeezed domestic fusion programs to the point of near-extinction. What path will Perry take?

Does the United States need to resume testing of nuclear weapons, and what reforms are needed to ensure the safety and reliability of the nuclear stockpile?

The last U.S. nuclear test occurred in 1992. Since then, DOE’s three weapons labs have used supercomputer simulations to ensure the safety and reliability of the stockpile, along with replacing components—such as heavy water in thermonuclear bombs—that decay or degrade. The Obama administration has lowered the number of nuclear warhead types to 12, from 23 in 1990, and there are plans to take another 50% cut over the next decade. A Trump tweet that the United States “must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes” was later clarified to be a reference to modernization, which has been a pillar of Obama’s nuclear strategy. But it is unclear whether that modernization will require a resumption of testing. The United States signed the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test Ban Treaty 20 years ago but has not ratified it.

What is DOE’s role in fostering exascale computing?

The United States has dominated the field of high-performance computing for decades, which has helped the nation maintain its leadership in science and technology. But China now has the world’s two fastest supercomputers, and three countries (China, Japan, France) have promised by 2020 to unveil an exascale machine—one that can perform a billion billion operations per second, more than 10 times more powerful than today’s leader. Those announcements forced DOE to shorten its timeline from 2022 to 2021, but the agency has struggled to obtain the desired funding from Congress. Supercomputing advances push the boundaries of technology development. That allows the companies and countries setting the pace to reap the commercial rewards of their sizeable investments in chips and software.

Is ARPA-E working, and should its funding be increased?

The Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) was created in 2007 and funded its first projects in 2009. Modeled after the Department of Defense's ARPA, ARPA-E aims to turn basic research into budding energy technologies that private industry will then develop. Republicans once saw that role as unnecessary government intervention in the free market, so one concern from scientists is whether Perry may rekindle that debate. As with so much in Washington, D.C., money may provide the answer; specifically, whether the Trump administration requests more or less than ARPA-E’s current $291 million budget.

Will you rebuild nuclear cooperation with China and resuscitate agreements with Russia?

In recent years, scientists in U.S. nuclear labs have had very little interaction with their peers in those two countries. A 1999 report by a House committee detailed allegations that China had stolen design information on advanced U.S. thermonuclear weapons, and that Chinese agents had penetrated U.S. labs for decades. Although China denied the allegations, the charges poisoned the well of collaboration. Joint projects with Russian nuclear scientists began to ebb soon after President Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000, and reached a nadir last October when Russia suspended an agreement with the United States on nuclear R&D cooperation and terminated another on retooling Russian research reactors to no longer run on weapons-grade uranium fuel.

U.S. nuclear scientists are working with their Chinese and Russian counterparts to implement the Iranian nuclear deal, which faces an uncertain future. The political predilections of Trump and his Cabinet augur continued improvement of scientific ties with Russia. And science could also become a counterweight to diplomatic battles with China over trade if the new administration wants to find common ground with the Asian power.

What role should DOE play in fostering a greener U.S. transportation system?

Car magazines are filled with articles about driverless cars, battery-powered vehicles, and climate-friendly fuels made from corn or algae. But the reality is that nearly all of the more than 250 million cars and trucks on the road today guzzle gasoline refined from oil, and don’t do it very efficiently.

The Obama administration made a concerted effort to transform the U.S. transportation system with battery startups, regulations that ramp up the use of cellulosic ethanol and other biofuels, and a near doubling of fuel efficiency requirements for light-duty cars and trucks. The impact of those policies is just beginning to be felt, although the more than half a million all-electric and gas-electric hybrids on U.S. roads is a good start. However, the continued greening of U.S. transportation will likely require scientific advancements in engine technology, lighter cars, and rules requiring their use. Trump has yet to signal whether his administration plans to continue driving in this direction.

Should the government reopen Yucca Mountain, or do you favor the current consent-based approach to finding a long-term storage site for high-level nuclear waste?

Congress decided in 1987 that the nation’s high-level nuclear waste from commercial reactors and other sources should be buried deep beneath Yucca Mountain in Nevada. But efforts to build and open the repository have run afoul of political opposition and technical obstacles. A presidential commission formed by the Obama administration concluded that Yucca was doomed, and that the nation needed a new siting process—involving a wide range of stakeholders, including state governments and advocacy and industry groups—to forge a workable deal. That process has yet to get off the ground. But supporters are hoping the retirement of one of the project’s most powerful adversaries—Senator Harry Reid (D–NV)—and Republican control of the White House will breathe new life into the project.

Should DOE spend more to help companies improve existing technology to extract and burn fossil fuels?

Environmental groups, climate activists, and some Democrats in Congress have long complained that federal agencies, and DOE in particular, have spent too much money supporting the fossil fuel industry, even as it racked up decades of impressive profits. But fossil fuel advocates note that DOE support has been critical to industry advances, including developing the technology behind fracking, offshore drilling, and cleaner-burning coal and natural gas power plants. The Obama administration, as part of its all-of-the-above energy strategy, increased DOE’s support for nonfossil fuels, but Congress made sure the agency also stayed in the fossil fuel game. Will Perry and the Trump administration shift the balance back again, or argue that the fossil fuel industry is mature enough to pay its own way?

Adrian Cho, Daniel Clery, Warren Cornwall, David Malakoff, Jeffrey Mervis, Robert Service, and Richard Stone contributed to this story, which was edited by Jeffrey Mervis.