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Cherry Murray in 2009.

Cherry Murray in 2009.

Harvard School of Engineering/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Nominee for DOE science chief looks to better integrate national labs

Cherry Murray, a physicist at Harvard University, stresses that she can't say definitely what she would do as director of the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE's) $5.1 billion Office of Science, the mammoth agency’s basic research wing. That’s because her nomination to the post, announced by the White House on 5 August, still must be confirmed by the Senate. However, if she is confirmed as head of the single biggest U.S. funder of the physical sciences, Murray says she already has an idea of where she would focus: on building bridges between Office of Science's 10 national laboratories and the six others run by different parts of DOE.

"The Office of Science manages its labs very well, it's the shining star of DOE," Murray says. "But they could be better integrated with the other national labs."

It remains to be seen whether Murray will get a chance to work on that integration, or whether, with 16 months to go in the current administration, the Senate will leave her nomination dangling. That's what happened to the previous Office of Science nominee, Marc Kastner, a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. Kastner was nominated in November 2013 but never received a confirmation vote and moved on to another position.

Murray has a stellar record as a scientific manager. From 1 July 2009 until the end of last year, she served as dean of engineering and applied science at Harvard. From 2007 to 2009 she was principal associate director for science and technology at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California—one of three labs run by DOE’s nuclear weapons division, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). Before that, Murray spent 26 years at the storied Bell Labs, the private research shop once owned by AT&T that produced eight Nobel Prize–winning discoveries in fields ranging from electronics to cosmology. She rose to senior vice president for physical sciences and wireless research before leaving in 2004.

"I have deep respect for [Murray] and her ability to think broadly across different branches of science," says Eric Isaacs, provost at the University of Chicago in Illinois, who also worked at Bell Labs. Murray's experience at Bell Labs makes her an ideal candidate for director of the Office of Science, says Isaacs, who served as director of DOE's Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont, Illinois, from 2009 to 2014. That's because the Office of Science is a mission-based agency: It focuses on research that furthers its goal of serving the nation's energy needs—unlike the National Science Foundation (NSF), which entertains a wide range of basic research proposals. Bell Labs was also mission-driven, Isaacs says.

Still, a mission-driven research program can produce fundamental scientific breakthroughs, Isaacs notes. For example, in 1982, a Bell Labs effort to develop better semiconductors led physicists to observe a surprising phenomenon called the fractional quantum Hall effect, in which electrons gang up to behave as if they have fractional electric charges. That advance earned a Nobel Prize in 1998.

Even so, Murray says that, if she's confirmed, the emphasis at the Office of Science will remain squarely on basic research. "It has been shown over and over again that the most valuable patents are the ones from basic science because they start new fields," she says.

Murray's experience at an NNSA lab also will help her integrate DOE's science activities into its broader mission, says Raymond Orbach, a physicist at the University of Texas, Austin, who served as both the director of the Office of Science and DOE's undersecretary for science under President George W. Bush. "She'll be terrific," he predicts.

But will Murray ever get to serve? That depends on whether Senate Republicans continue to impede the confirmations of many of President Barack Obama's appointees, says Michael Lubell, a lobbyist with the American Physical Society in Washington, D.C. Orbach says it is important for the Office of Science to have a director appointed by the president and approved by the Senate because such an imprimatur gives the director clout—especially within the administration. "You speak for the president," Orbach says. Still, he acknowledges that the Office of Science continues to run smoothly under acting director Patricia Dehmer, a DOE veteran who has filled in since William Brinkman stepped down in April 2013. Many observers consider Dehmer one of the best scientific leaders in Washington.

Even if Murray gets confirmed, she may serve only about a year, because presidential appointees typically depart when their bosses leave the White House. "It's an election year, and it's Obama's last year," Lubell says. "So her ability to get things done is going to be limited." Still, Murray says the nomination is "a wonderful opportunity and I do think that even within a year, I would be of some help."

And why did Murray accept a nomination for a 1-year stint she might not get? "The secretary asked me," she says, referring to Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz. Murray says that she turned down previous overtures to direct NSF because she was still dean at Harvard at the time.