Credit: U.S. Department of Energy
Two days ago, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced that Steven Koonin, undersecretary for science, would step down on 18 November. Yesterday,
Koonin ticked off some of his accomplishments for ScienceInsider, explained his reasons for leaving and his plans for the future.
Observers have said that Koonin was frustrated by his position
, which nominally gave him responsibility for scientific activities throughout DOE. In practice, however, it gave him no control over budgets—not
even for DOE's $4.8 billion Office of Science, whose budget is controlled by its director, William Brinkman. Koonin acknowledges that having the "power
of the pulpit but not the purse strings" was an issue, but says he was effective nonetheless. "It terms of what actually gets done, I think I
influenced things quite a bit," Koonin says. He's stepping down now, he says, because he's accomplished much of what he set out do to when he took the
post in May 2009.
In particular, Koonin led DOE's first Quadrennial Technology Review (QTR), released on 27
September. That 159-page document had three goals, Koonin says: To provide a framework by which experts and nonexperts alike could familiarize
themselves with U.S. energy infrastructure and issues, to make clear to all interested parties who in DOE does what, and to lay out the principles and
priorities that should shape DOE's future efforts. "You're the DOE," Koonin says. "Exactly what do you do in energy and what impact does it have?"
Koonin says that when he undertook the QTR in January, he told Secretary of Energy Steven Chu that he would leave when it was completed.
Prior to coming to DOE, Koonin served as chief scientist at British Petroleum, and he has pushed for research that's more directly oriented toward the
world's looming energy problem. For example, under Koonin's watch, DOE founded three "energy innovation hubs," multidisciplinary institutions tasked
with tackling a specific energy-related science topic, such as simulating nuclear reactors, making buildings more energy-efficient, and generating
fuels using sunlight. (DOE has proposed five other hubs.) "The hubs are really wonderful," Koonin says. "If you look at what they've accomplished and
where they're headed, they're just what we need."
Koonin's job also called for pulling together the research done in the DOE's four main branches: the Office of Science; the National Nuclear Security
Administration (NNSA), which oversee the nation's stockpile of nuclear weapons; DOE's environmental management program; and its "applied programs" such
as fossil energy, nuclear energy, and renewable energy. Among his accomplishments, Koonin says, were efforts to build bridges between researchers
within NNSA who do large-scale computer simulations for maintaining nuclear weapons and scientists in other programs who could use such simulations to
address other problems. Koonin also tasked the Office of Science to develop a science program to help exploit the basic research opportunities created
by NNSA's massive laser fusion experiment, the National Ignition Facility at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.
As for the lack of budget authority, Koonin says, "that was an aspect of my position." But he says that in some regards it was an advantage to be able
take in the big picture without having to worry about the spending details. Still, the position of undersecretary for science could be strengthened,
Koonin says. (DOE has two other undersecretaries, one for NNSA and the other for environmental management and the applied energy programs, although
that second post is currently vacant.) Koonin likens the undersecretary for science to a university provost and notes that a provost often controls a
discretionary fund to start his or her own initiatives. "I think I've been effective," he says, "but with a little pot of money for that it could have
been even better."
Koonin's next stop will be the Science and Technology Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., a government-funded research and development center that
advises the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and other agencies. But a spot at the institute is likely only a stepping stone.
Koonin, who served as provost at the California Institute of Technology from 1995 to 2004, says he hopes to line up a position at a university by the
beginning of the next academic year.