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Paul Dabbar is the Department of Energy’s new undersecretary for science.

Simon Edelman/Department of Energy/Flickr

U.S. energy department reshuffles science’s place within sprawling agency

As part of a major reorganization of the sprawling, $31 billion Department of Energy (DOE) in Washington, D.C., U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry has separated responsibility for the department's science and energy components. Some DOE watchers—including Perry's immediate predecessor, Ernest Moniz—warn that the change is likely to weaken science’s status within DOE and undermine the department's mission. However, history suggests that science’s place within the DOE bureaucracy may matter less in determining its fate than senior leadership’s commitment to research.

In a 15 December statement, Perry said the changes would help the 40-year-old department carry out its broad mission. “This new structure will support American energy dominance, enhance our energy and national security, and improve outcomes in environmental management while ensuring DOE remains the leader in scientific innovation,” he explained.

Most significantly, Perry changed the roles of DOE's three undersecretaries, who report to him and his deputy, Dan Brouillette. The new alignment means DOE will have three undersecretaries—for science, energy, and nuclear security. Moniz had established a single undersecretary for both energy and science in hopes of improving the synergy between the two sectors. In doing so, Moniz was tweaking a format mandated by Congress during the presidency of George W. Bush that was intended to elevate science within the DOE hierarchy.

One longtime DOE watcher believes the reshuffling threatens the health of DOE’s $5.4 billion Office of Science, which funds basic research at U.S. universities and runs 10 of DOE's 17 national laboratories. “It is a foolish way to break things up," says Michael Lubell, a physicist at the City College of New York in New York City and a former lobbyist for the American Physical Society in Washington, D.C.

Not necessarily, says Thom Mason, senior vice president for laboratory operations at Battelle in Columbus—a DOE contractor—and a former director of DOE's Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. "There's certainly an argument for better integration of the science and energy programs, but that can still happen if there's a will," Mason says. "I don't think it's that dramatic [a change]."

Where the new boxes go

The reorganization won’t affect the duties of the undersecretary for nuclear security, who also leads the $12.9 billion National Nuclear Security Administration. (Last week, Lisa Gordon-Hagerty was nominated for the job of ensuring the readiness of the country’s nuclear arsenal. If confirmed, she would succeed Frank Klotz, who had held the job since 2014.)

But Perry is reshuffling the rest of the DOE management deck. Under Moniz, the undersecretary for management and performance oversaw environmental management—a $5 billion program to clean up radioactive contamination at old weapons sites—and internal department functions. The undersecretary for science and energy oversaw the Office of Science and DOE's energy programs: nuclear energy, fossil energy, electrical energy, and the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE).

Under the new arrangement, the energy programs and EERE will fall under the purview of the new undersecretary of energy, Mark Menezes. The Office of Science and the Office of Environmental Management will answer to the new undersecretary for science, Paul Dabbar, a former investment banker and veteran of the nuclear navy. (The Senate confirmed the nominations of both men on 2 November.)

Moniz has argued that the new arrangement cuts a key tie between DOE's science efforts and its energy programs. He declined to speak to ScienceInsider for this story. However, when such a reorganization was first suggested in July, he told E&E News that his way of arranging things "had a demonstrably positive impact in better integrating crosscutting science/energy research initiatives." Lubell shares Moniz's frustration. "What they have done makes no sense whatsoever," he says.

But Cherry Murray, a physicist at Harvard University and director of the Office of Science from December 2015 to January 2017, disagrees. She notes that Dabbar served for years on DOE's environmental management advisory board. That experience and expertise should benefit the cleanup efforts, Murray says. "It makes tremendous sense to put environmental management under him," she says. Mason says he sees the decision to place the Office of Technology Transitions in the purview of the undersecretary of science as a signal that Perry will make commercializing energy technology a higher priority.

Lubell believes the new alignment could hurt funding levels for basic research, which he says are determined through horse trading among the department’s undersecretaries. But Mason and Murray think the effect will be minimal, noting that the Office of Science, the nuclear energy program, and EERE all have their own budget lines and that the final finance decisions fall to the secretary of energy and DOE's chief financial officer.

Going back to go forward?

Ironically, DOE's reorganization brings the undersecretary of science position closer to what it was in 2005, when Congress created it at the urging of Lubell and other physicists. The job was given to Raymond Orbach, who was also director of the Office of Science.

The position proved problematic during former President Barack Obama's administration, however, after Steven Koonin became undersecretary for science under Energy Secretary Steven Chu. The only DOE program answering to the undersecretary was the Office of Science, led by William Brinkman, who had strong personal ties to Chu from their years working together at the storied Bell Labs. So "Koonin didn't have anything to do," Lubell says.

Koonin left DOE in 2011, and the post remained vacant until Moniz combined it with DOE’s energy programs. That position, held for 2 years by Franklin Orr, was more like what physicists had wanted originally, Lubell says, but Murray says the extra layer of bureaucracy was, at times, cumbersome.

Lubell is also worried that Dabbar’s experience isn’t a good fit for his new job. "He may be smart, but his expertise is in mergers and acquisitions," Lubell says. Murray says Dabbar is well-suited to defend the Office of Science within DOE’s senior management. "Things will be fine," she predicts, "because Paul is a great spokesperson for science."