It looked like the sort of appointment that would make many scientists uneasy. Last week, the White House announced the nomination of Paul Dabbar, now an investment banker, as undersecretary for science for the Department of Energy (DOE). The position aims to coordinate scientific efforts and expertise across the sprawling agency, which has a $30.8 billion annual budget. Several sources familiar with DOE’s $5.3 billion Office of Science—the United States’s single largest funder of the physical sciences—told ScienceInsider that they did not know Dabbar, who has his Senate confirmation hearing tomorrow. But observers versed in DOE’s broader mission say that Dabbar is highly qualified and applaud his nomination.
“He is one bright cookie,” says Beverly Ramsey, a systems ecologist at the Desert Research Institute in Reno, Nevada, who has worked at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee and Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and currently serves with Dabbar on DOE’s Environmental Management Advisory Board. “Dabbar has a great personality, he has a very easy way of making his points, and he asks great questions.”
The White House announcement stresses Dabbar’s business experience. He’s the managing director for mergers and acquisitions at J.P. Morgan in New York City and, according to the White House announcement, “has over $400 billion in investment experience across all energy sectors.” But it’s Dabbar’s earlier career that DOE observers point to with interest. A graduate of the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Dabbar served as a nuclear submarine officer. “As a general principle, the nuclear navy is a really elite organization,” says Matthew Bunn, an expert on nuclear arms, energy, and proliferation at Harvard University, who says he doesn’t know Dabbar. “There ain’t no such thing as a stupid nuclear navy guy.”
Those who do know Dabbar say he has the experience, skills, and disposition needed to succeed as undersecretary. In the greater DOE milieu, Dabbar is very well known, says Daniel Poneman, president and CEO of Centrus Energy Corp. in Bethesda, Maryland, who from 2009 to 2014 served as DOE’s deputy secretary of energy. “If you talk to utility CEOs, I think you would find that most if not all of them know Paul very well,” he says. “He’s got all the technical knowledge and the regulatory knowledge, but he’s also deeply practical.” Ramsey says Dabbar has already demonstrated the kind of insight that would benefit DOE’s mission. “He has been very good at looking at what are the emergent technologies and how we could apply them to do what DOE needs to do,” she says.
The undersecretary need not be a scientist to be an effective administrator, says Poneman, a lawyer. Dabbar will have plenty of help with the scientific matters, Poneman predicts: “He’ll have 17 national lab directors to talk to who are rocket scientists.” Ramsey cautions against underestimating Dabbar’s scientific understanding. “The guy is certainly not science-free,” she says. “You don’t get to take the path he’s taken without knowing a lot about everything from mechanical engineering to nuclear physics.”
Perhaps the biggest question surrounding Dabbar’s nomination is what role he will actually play if confirmed by Senate (which is expected). Congress created the undersecretary for science position in 2005, during the administration of former President George W. Bush, and it was first held by Raymond Orbach, a theoretical physicist who simultaneously served as director of the Office of Science. However, the position proved problematic during the administration of former President Barrack Obama when Steven Koonin, also a theoretical physicist, served as undersecretary for science. Koonin had little budget authority and direct responsibility for only the Office of Science, a situation that left numerous observers suggesting that he and the director were sharing a job. Koonin left DOE in 2011 after serving just 2 years.
The position remained vacant until 2013, when then–Secretary of Energy Ernst Moniz reorganized DOE management. He combined the undersecretary for science and the parallel undersecretary of energy position to create an undersecretary for science and energy who had authority over the Office of Science, DOE’s nuclear and fossil energy programs, its energy efficiency and renewable energy program, and others. (Moniz also created an undersecretary for management and performance who was given control over the national laboratories, environmental clean-up, human resources, etc.) Last week’s White House announcement, and the current DOE organizational chart, suggest that Secretary of Energy Rick Perry will restore the undersecretary positions to their original specifications. The biggest question may then be whether Dabbar finds the downsized remit satisfying.