DOE Science Chief to Step Down
More change is in store atop the Department of Energy (DOE). On 15 March, William Brinkman, head of DOE's Office of Science, announced that he will resign his post on 12 April. Brinkman says he decided to leave DOE for personal reasons. "My wife and I have plans on what we'd like to do that we've put off for 4 years," Brinkman says. Most immediately, Brinkman says he plans to spend part of the summer working with his wife to restore their summer home in Loveladies, New Jersey, which was damaged in Superstorm Sandy. The Obama administration has yet to announce Brinkman's successor, who must be confirmed by the Senate.
Brinkman joined DOE in June 2009. Prior to taking command of the Office of Science, Brinkman was a senior research physicist at Princeton University. Before that, Brinkman worked at Bell Laboratories where he served as the head of the physics research division, and later as vice president of research.
In a 15 March e-mail to DOE staff members (see below), Brinkman detailed a number the Office of Science's achievements in recent years, including the establishment of DOE's 46 Energy Frontier Research Centers, which were selected in 2009 to push the research boundaries on clean energy topics, such as solar power, electricity storage, carbon sequestration, and nuclear power.
At the same time, Brinkman made it clear that Washington's budget battles are beginning to take their toll on the nation's R&D. "As I leave office, my biggest concern remains the erosion of science funding in the United States when most of the industrialized countries of the world are increasing funding," he wrote. In a testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, and Related Agencies on 5 March, Brinkman expanded on his concerns, noting that the recently enacted across-the-board cuts known as the sequester will mean cuts of $215 million for the Office of Science. Those cuts, he said, will force cancellation of the FastForward initiative designed to accelerate progress toward the next generation of supercomputers; elimination of up to 60 graduate student awards at universities; a delay of planned upgrades at the Linac Coherent Light Source in California; cancellation of three funding calls in the biological and environmental research program; and a likely slowdown of the delivery of hardware slated for ITER, the international fusion reactor. "Sequestration greatly endangers the scope of our scientific program, as well as our ability to keep our construction projects on time and on budget," Brinkman concluded.
Mark Ratner, a materials chemist at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, and a member of DOE's Basic Energy Sciences Advisory Committee, says that Brinkman's leadership will be missed. "Bill brought insight, creativity, hard work and a stellar history as a physicist to the Office of Science," Ratner writes in an e-mail. "He has led the Office with brilliance and with creativity. The sequester has made the job more difficult, since it was designed to be irrational (and not to be implemented)."
News of Brinkman's departure brought a wistful reaction from some staff members on Capitol Hill who dealt with him regularly. He had earned a reputation as a trustworthy and down-to-earth advocate for DOE's science programs. But he also became known for his soft-spoken demeanor; during hearings, lawmakers routinely had to remind Brinkman to speak up or get closer to the microphone, so that they could understand what he was saying. The exchanges even earned him a moniker form one science lobbyist: "Dr. Mumbles."
Brinkman says that he's open to returning to Princeton University or the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, where he and his wife intend to move after leaving Washington.
Here is the full text of Brinkman's farewell e-mail:
Sent: Friday, March 15, 2013 11:39 AM
Subject: Moving On
It's time for me to move on!
Now that the new DOE leadership team is taking shape, I am writing to let you know I will be moving on. My last day at DOE will be Friday, April 12. Between now and then, I will be transitioning and taking some personal time and will be away from the office much of the time between March 22 and April 12. As I leave office, my biggest concern remains the erosion of science funding in the United States when most of the industrialized countries of the world are increasing funding.
When I came to DOE, I started with a principle that I have used when I changed positions in the past, namely, that I should assume that all the people in my organization are good at their jobs. There is no question that the staff in SC has lived up to that initial expectation. We have made some changes but, overall, I believe SC is a very sound organization today.
So what did we accomplish? Actually a lot. Many new, exciting scientific advances have occurred: the first X-ray FEL, the Higgs particle was discovered, strongly enhanced use of simulation in materials science, discovery of new aspects of the nature of the quark-gluon plasma, and a host of new results on possible energy technologies have been discovered, to mention just a few. ITER has a new leadership team in place and construction is well on its way. Overall, our international collaborations have increased and we have sharpened our focus on making these strategically important.
Probably the largest changes have occurred in our approach to science relevant to energy technologies. The Energy Frontier Research Centers, two hubs, and the biofuels centers are established and are working effectively. I believe we have made considerable progress in getting our climate program integrated into the broader US government effort and I look forward to the next IPCC report in which our modeling will surely play a major role. We have established "tech teams" to coordinate applied and basic science activities in technology areas important to the DOE energy mission that, I believe, will continue to have an important role, as they already have, in fostering funding opportunity announcements that are collaborative among the applied and basic science offices.
On the lab management side much has changed. We have a new, strong leadership team in place that is making many changes. The processing of grants through our Chicago office has been greatly improved and is much more user friendly than in the past, the organization at Oak Ridge has been moved forward more toward what we expect of a service center, and several new site office leaders have been appointed. It continues to be important to exploit modern communications and data systems to improve operational effectiveness and we are on a path to consolidate IT functions as an important element of this strategy.
I congratulate the PAMS team for the dedication and leadership they have shown in making PAMS a reality. In our internal SC headquarters organization, we have recruited new leadership for and have greatly improved our public relations and human resources organizations.
The national laboratories have grown stronger over the last four years. The multipurpose labs are not only doing excellent science but also are broadening their impact on the country through increasing coupling to American industry and greater involvement in national security. We continue to manage these laboratories through our annual strategic plan reviews and the grading system, which has received praise from within the Department and in external reviews. We have made careful judgments on whether to renew or compete lab contracts and have been successful in a number of cases.
I look forward to interacting with many of you as a function of time and wish the entire organization and all of DOE great success.
Dr. W. F. Brinkman
Director, Office of Science