New Energy Board Hears Score: Bureaucracy 1, Chu 0

Eli is a contributing correspondent for Science magazine.

Steven Koonin, the Department of Energy's (DOE's) undersecretary for science, had a blunt assessment today for efforts by himself and his boss, Energy Secretary Steve Chu, to have the $27 billion agency carry out research more efficiently: They're mostly not working.

Earlier this year, Chu pledged in Senate testimony to "break down the traditional stovepipes and operate in a more integrated and coordinated manner." But speaking to a new advisory board this morning, the man hired in large part to accomplish that goal delivered a damning indictment of the bureaucratic turf-minding and red tape he and Chu have faced.

Koonin, an accomplished physicist who was a longtime provost at the California Institute of Technology before becoming chief scientist at BP earlier this decade, came to DOE with apparently modest expectations. After a year and a half on the job, however, he's found the R&D capabilities of DOE "far richer than I supposed." But the job of making the department's various branches cooperate, he said, was "much more difficult than I expected."

As a result, DOE has "underperformed" in using its massive capabilities—laboratories, program managers, research grants—in its three main areas: developing and safeguarding nuclear weapons, carrying out energy research, and funding basic science. One area that has worked well, he said, was research into combustion, in which the Office of Science's Basic Energy Sciences branch and its counterparts in the Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy were cooperating nicely. But, he said, "there are few examples like that."

Koonin laid out four areas where the arms of the hulking bureaucracy need to do a better job of helping one another: simulations, scientific computing, fusion, and advanced materials/extreme environments. Simulating nuclear reactors or the electrical grid, for example, are research efforts done at DOE's energy research offices. But they could be enhanced by utilizing the supercomputer facilities found at DOE's weapons labs and the scientific computing expertise at the Office of Science.

"Cultural" differences remained entrenched and serious despite scores of meetings to tackle the problem, the physicist said. Defense is the main goal of the nuclear weapons arm of DOE, which has stymied partnerships on energy work. The energy research offices have priorities that tend to shift with the "partisan" tides, he said, as administrations and bureaucrats favor wind or nuclear or coal research, for example, depending on the "political" winds. The Office of Science is "very cautious" in part because it fears connecting with energy research, for which political support can waver, and in part because of the conservative tendencies of the scientific community it supports.

Bureaucrats in one section of DOE may eschew partnerships with others because they "don't want to worry about the other guys' labs," he said. Meanwhile, White House budgeters, Office of Science and Technology Policy staff members and aides on Capitol Hill are not familiar with formalized, proposed collaborative efforts at DOE and may not support them. Within the department, he said, "individual programs are reluctant to get high-level help" from senior officials such as Koonin, who might guide them to partner with others at DOE.

Chu, listening attentively, raised no objects to Koonin's critique. Chu did say he was trying to increase cooperation at DOE by demanding that energy research offices funding work not only at the laboratories they traditionally support (for example, Fossil Energy's NETL) but also at other places doing the "best science."

As members of the advisory board kicked around ideas for making the department work more cohesively, Chu revealed that he had considered a big shakeup when he first took the reins early last year. "There was a discussion as to whether we should redo the org chart," he said. "I decided not to, at the time. Maybe I should of."

One big reason for his hesitation was the giant influx of money from the federal stimulus package that had to be disbursed. It left little time or energy for anything else, including dealing with the inevitable disruption that a shakeup would cause. "If we had done a reorganization, you'd spend your time fixing the mistakes of the reorganization."

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