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Steven Koonin to Step Down as DOE Science Honcho

U.S. Department of Energy

Steven Koonin is leaving his job as undersecretary for science in the Department of Energy (DOE) after an unhappy stint in a poorly defined position.

Koonin's departure, announced in an 8 November memo from Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, busts up something of a scientific dream team within the upper echelons of DOE. Its other members are Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, and William Brinkman, the director of DOE's Office of Science, who was executive director of physics research at the storied Bell Labs. However, observers say they're not surprised to see Koonin go, as his position gave him little power.

"Steve's been looking around for awhile—it hasn't been a secret," says Michael Lubell, a lobbyist with the American Physical Society (APS) in Washington, D.C. "He has not been terribly happy at DOE for some time."

The roots of Koonin's unhappiness may lie in the odd nature of his post. Until 5 years ago DOE had two undersecretaries: one responsible for the National Nuclear Security Administration, which maintains the United States arsenal of nuclear weapons and currently has a budget of $10.5 billion, and another responsible for everything else in DOE, including its Office of Science, environmental management program, and energy programs such as fossil energy and nuclear energy. In 2001, APS spearheaded a drive to create a third undersecretary who would oversee the Office of Science and the energy programs, leaving environmental management by itself. That would have effectively split DOE's budget, currently $27 billion, in thirds, and placed programs with a strong science component under one undersecretary, Lubell says.

Things worked out somewhat differently, however. Under the Energy Policy Act of 2005, Congress established the undersecretary for science position, which nominally has responsibility for all science in the non-weapons programs in DOE, but controls the budget only of the Office of Science, currently $4.8 billion. The first undersecretary for science, Raymond Orbach, who served from May 2006 to January 2009, held both that title and the directorship of the Office of Science. But 1 month after Koonin came aboard in May 2009, Brinkman was confirmed as director of the Office of Science, effectively taking away from Koonin the purse strings to that program. "Here was a guy who had no budget authority, and that's a tough position," Lubell says.

Over the past 2.5 years, Koonin helped draft DOE's strategic plan and led its first Quadrennial Technology Review. A champion of research that addresses the world's energy problems, Koonin also took a keen interest in efforts to achieve a self-sustaining fusion reaction with the gigantic National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, say Raymond Fonck, a fusion physicist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. "He seemed to have a passion to make the department work and to see that the energy policy of the country has some coherence," Fonck says.

Koonin, a theoretical physicist by training and former chief scientist at British Petroleum, is leaving next week for the Institute for Defense Analyses' Science and Technology Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. As for the problematic post of undersecretary for science, Fonck hopes it can be made more effective.

"Given the amount of physical science research [in DOE's various programs], having somebody sit above all that and try to fit the pieces together seems to make sense," says Fonck, who served as the Office of Science's associate director for fusion energy science under Orbach. But given Koonin's experience, Lubell says, it may be hard to find somebody willing to take the less-than-powerful position.