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Paul Dabbar (center) at a visit last fall to the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois

Reidar Hahn/Fermilab

Undersecretary Paul Dabbar paints broad vision for Department of Energy science

When the White House nominated Paul Dabbar as the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) undersecretary for science last July, many scientists had no idea who he was. However, he knew plenty about DOE. A 1989 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Dabbar sailed on nuclear submarines for 5 years before earning an MBA from Columbia University. He spent 21 years as an investment banker at JPMorgan Chase, where he focused on nuclear energy and emerging energy technologies.

Dabbar oversees DOE’s basic research arm, the $6.3 billion Office of Science. He also is responsible for technology transfer and DOE’s $7.1 billion environmental management (EM) effort, which aims to clean up pollution at old nuclear weapons sites. DOE’s applied energy programs and the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which maintains the United States’s arsenal of nuclear weapons, answer to other undersecretaries. Dabbar spoke recently with ScienceInsider about his unusual background and his vision for DOE’s scientific efforts.

The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: How did you go from the nuclear Navy and Wall Street to undersecretary for science?

A: In fifth grade I decided I wanted to go study nuclear engineering and work on submarines, and that I wanted to go to the Naval Academy.

At the Naval Academy, I took a broad range of classes dealing with nuclear physics and engineering and design, but also with what they would call alternate energy systems—fusion, renewables, alternate designs to light-water nuclear reactors. … [Then] I did research at the Johns Hopkins [University] Applied Physics Laboratory [in Laurel, Maryland].

I enjoyed being a submarine operator and dealing with the practical issues of xenon spikes and burning fuel and refueling, etc. But I also enjoyed seeing the sun. After I finished up in the Navy, I wanted to be involved in the broader energy sector. So I went to business school.

Q: Can you elaborate?

A: My work had a couple of themes— broad energy technologies and science strings around commercialization and nuclear. I was involved with commercialization around high-temperature superconductors. I also dealt with concentrating solar startup companies and a number of wind start-up companies. I was even involved with trying to commercialize fusion. On each project you got up to speed on the particular technology and topic.

In the nuclear space, I worked for a team that worked with DOE and the White House Office of Management and Budget in the 1990s looking at privatization of the U.S. Enrichment Corporation (USEC). For reactor fuel, for the most part you need enriched uranium. And for a very long time the No. 1 source in the world for enriching uranium for the commercial sector was the U.S. DOE. There was a decision taken during the [Bill] Clinton administration to look at privatizing that.

I was involved with the purchase or sale of 18 reactors throughout the United States. I also worked for the government of Japan on the national decommissioning and compensation fund, which was the group that was set up to inject money into Tokyo Electric Power [Company] (TEPCO) after Fukushima. I led a team working on how the government would take control over TEPCO. I was also on the advisory board for the EM program for 12 years. As a result of all my interactions with the department around USEC and various nuclear topics, commercial energy topics, environmental management topics, I was known to a lot of people across administrations.

Q: One former DOE official was very positive about your connection with EM. What do you envision doing to bolster the EM program?

A: One of the things that I saw before I was in this position was that there are science and technology strings that have been developed at national labs that have not been fully utilized. A lot of the EM clean-up issues are managed through contractors, who go and get resourcing around technology issues. So, I have moved to help the contractors access the technologies that are being worked on remediation issues, on radiochemistry, on vitrification [of nuclear material], and so-on.

Second, the vast majority of what DOE does is through its 17 national labs. And all four areas—NNSA, environmental management, science, and applied research—deal with contracting, contractor management, and project management. The Office of Science does a pretty darned good job in terms of project management. It does a pretty good job of contracting and contractor management. So we’re taking the lessons learned of how that is done and seeing how that can be applied to other projects across [DOE].

The third area is smaller than the other two, but important to me and the lab directors. There are buildings within the current Office of Science national lab complex that are intertwined with the historical legacy buildings, and we’d like to get those cleaned up so that new buildings can be built.

Q: When Steven Chu was secretary of energy under former President Barack Obama he tried to develop these mini–Bell Labs centers called hubs. When Ernest Moniz became secretary, he kept the hubs, but emphasized the national laboratories. Do you and Secretary Rick Perry have a particular vision for where science programs are going?

A: As you’ve heard the secretary say several times, the 17 national labs are the crown jewels of the department. We are less focused on changing structural points than on looking at the programs and strings within programs in which we want to have leadership.

Toward the top for the whole Office of Science is exascale and high-performance computing. Obviously, the Summit supercomputer is about to be commissioned [at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee]. There’s the Coral venture [of supercomputers at Oak Ridge, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, and Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont, Illinois] and the three [proposed] exascale machines. There’s also application points around exascale.

We’re also very focused on quantum information science, quantum computing, and quantum networking. We issued three funding opportunity announcements just in the last few weeks, one on a testbed pathfinder, one on quantum materials, and one around quantum information science topics.

The third area is completing user facilities. One of the core strengths of the Office of Science and the national lab complex is building and operating user facilities [such as x-ray synchrotrons, neutron sources, and atom smashers] for the broader community. As a result of the 2018 budget, we will be accelerating funding around [facilities now under construction]. And there has been an acceleration around the next wave of user facilities.

We’ve spent a significant amount of time meeting with various user groups from different program areas, as well as reaching out further to industry and the private sector. We have increased our dialogue with other countries, with Japan, Korea, the U.K., and the EU, on user facilities, what areas they want to take the lead on, and what areas that we might want to take the lead on.

Q: A few observers questioned your nomination because they believe a 2005 law says the job should be filled by a scientist. Are there advantages to not coming out of the scientific world?

A: The statute does say an engineering or science background. If you think about large technology organizations, some of those large and extremely forward-leaning information technology companies, some of them have had Ph.D.s as leaders and a lot of them have not. You can say the same thing for chemical engineering companies and plastics companies and refining companies and so on.

There’s a few important things that successful technology organizations have in common in terms of leadership. It’s about strategic vision. It’s about inclusiveness and soliciting input on what paths that we should be focused on. And it’s about execution.

I can clearly see the perspective that can be brought to the table by someone who is a lab director or worked in a major university. I also think someone who has dealt with a broad range of technologies, but hasn’t worked at a national lab, brings a different perspective. I wouldn’t want to compare one to the other. But I do think that the latter can be additive to the mission.