Scientists appear to be taking over the U.S. Department of Energy. The White House announced today that it was nominating Kristina Johnson, currently provost of Johns Hopkins University, to be undersecretary of energy. If confirmed, she'll move into an office down the hall from Energy Secretary Steven Chu, former director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and oversee a wide swath of DOE's activities, including development of energy from coal, wind, solar, and nuclear sources, and the management of radioactive waste. The position is distinct from undersecretary for science, which oversees DOE's $4.8 billion Office of Science.
Johnson, an electrical engineer, previously served as dean of Duke University's Pratt School of Engineering. She also directed an NSF Engineering Research Center for Optoelectronic Computing Systems when she was on the faculty of the University of Colorado, Boulder.
Johnson, 51, is not considered an expert on energy policy. But she has extensive experience turning laboratory innovations into commercial products—something that Chu says he wants DOE to do better. She has cofounded several companies and holds 129 U.S. and foreign patents or patents pending.
Ernest Moniz, a professor of physics at MIT who ran both the science and energy shops at DOE during the Clinton Administration, says the leap from academia to DOE isn't as big as you may think. "She's accustomed to dealing with bureaucracies that may not be completely responsive," he says. One key part of the job, he adds, is building a good relationship with Congress.
That's something Johnson is likely to do well, says Robert Clark, who worked with her at Duke before taking over as dean of the University of Rochester's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. "She's memorable," says Clark. "Very smart and quite charming. I think it would be a great match."