Department of Energy

Arun Majumdar

ARPA-E's Majumdar Takes First Step Toward No. 3 Post at Energy

Jeff tries to explain how government works to readers of Science.

Arun Majumdar appears to be on a fast track toward becoming undersecretary of energy. That means Energy Secretary Steven Chu may soon have to decide whether to let Majumdar retain his current job as founding director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) or choose a successor.

Today the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources held a confirmation hearing on Majumdar's nomination as undersecretary. The hearing amounted to a bipartisan "competition for throwing bouquets," noted Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), who joined his colleagues in heaping praise on the job that Majumdar has done since Chu plucked him 2 years ago from the Department of Energy's (DOE's) Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to head the department's new blue-sky research shop.

In March, Majumdar became acting undersecretary, but it wasn't until late last month that the Obama Administration officially nominated him for the department's No. 3 position. His predecessor, Kristina Johnson, stepped down in October 2010 after 18 months on the job, and one of her deputies, Cathy Zoi, held the post on an acting basis for a few months before leaving the Administration.

"We're pleased to have such a highly qualified and experienced nominee, whom I fully support," said committee chair Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), in kicking off the 45-minute hearing. The panel's ranking member, Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), echoed his sentiments in her opening statement: "My question is, how has Dr. Majumdar learned to survive without any sleep?" She said the materials scientist and member of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering has been doing both jobs "with incredible energy and passion."

Majumdar said a decision on whether he would continue to be double-hatted "is up to the secretary." Last week, a DOE spokesperson said that the confirmation process is expected to take "several months" and that Majumdar would remain at ARPA-E while his nomination was pending. But a Senate panel staffer said this morning that "we're waiting to hear who the secretary nominates" for ARPA-E, signaling that a change is expected. A science lobbyist noted that Majumdar would have two bosses if he kept both positions, because the ARPA-E director reports directly to Chu while the undersecretary reports to Deputy Energy Secretary Daniel Poneman.

Bingaman said after the hearing that he hoped Majumdar's nomination could be approved by the full Senate this month before Congress takes its holiday break. The committee has already voted out four other nominees for senior DOE positions. But that would require unanimous consent, something that's increasingly rare these days in Congress even on matters about which there is no disagreement.

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