New Department of Energy Cast! Same Old Show?

by Michael S. Lubell, APS Director of Public Affairs

The Obama White House has given the Department of Energy a superb gift. By appointing Steve Chu Secretary of Energy, Steve Koonin and Kristina Johnson, Under Secretaries for Science and Energy, and Bill Brinkman Director of the Office of Science, the President has arguably handed DOE the best scientific team the Department has ever had at its highest managerial levels.

Chu, a Nobel Laureate, is former director of Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory; Koonin is former chief scientist at BP and former provost of Caltech; Johnson is former provost and vice president for academic affairs of Johns Hopkins; and Brinkman, a past APS president, is former vice president for research at Bell Laboratories.

As Ira Gershwin’s 1930 Girl Crazy lyrics read, “Who could ask for anything more?” Well I could, and I do.

In Washington’s corridors of power, the Department of Energy has an extraordinary reputation, and it’s not extraordinarily good.

Ask any Capitol Hill staffer or Member of Congress to name the federal agencies with the worst reputations, and the two that surface most often are the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy. Years after their births–and in DOE’s case it’s been 32 years–they continue to exhibit behavior characteristic of children run amok.

Congress created both departments from mélanges of disparate federal programs and forced their often-incongruent cultures into unnatural cohabitation. The result: unwieldy bureaucracies, disruptive turf battles, and excessive stove piping. (There are some public servants who rise above the miasma –they know who they are–and I applaud them.) Add to these flaws, any one of which could be fatal by itself, a dash of political tone deafness, and you have a perfect prescription for Potomac dysfunctionality.

When Steve Chu took over the reins at the Energy Department’s Forrestal headquarters, no one questioned his extraordinary science credentials and his amazing ability to tackle complex science and technology problems. But amidst the euphoria accompanying the selection of the first science Nobelist to serve in a President’s Cabinet, there were the inevitable whispers, “Can he tame the DOE bureaucrats and create function out of dysfunction?”

Nine months into the effort, the feral DOE child is still fussing.  Chu has been inspiring and has set internal goals of streamlining operations and breaking down barriers. But, according to sources on the Hill, the Department’s behavior still smacks of remoteness, obfuscation, poor communication, and more than a modicum of arrogance.

In these regards, DOE seems out of step with the White House, which has worked hard to accord Congress appropriate respect as a co-equal branch of government.  To be fair, most members of Chu’s team have been in place for less than four months, and many policy positions still remain unfilled. Still there are signs that the new team may not be acting fast enough.

When DOE released its budget for FY 2010, it included a request for funding eight “Energy Hubs” at $25 million per year. With enthusiasm that was positively contagious, Chu described them as mini Bell Labs, where scientists would be able to devote their creative energies to addressing pressing energy needs, freed from the cumbersome overlapping levels of bureaucratic oversight for which the Department of Energy has become famous. He wasn’t wearing jeans and a black turtleneck, but Steve Jobs would have given him a high five for being inspirational.

Yet, when Congress asked for details, DOE officials provided conflicting stories about the Hubs, so much so that appropriators decided to put most of them on hold.  The appropriators did the same thing with the Department’s budgetary request for its clean energy education and training program called RE-ENERGYSE, again asserting that DOE officials had not kept Congress sufficiently informed about the rationale.

But congressional complaints about the Department’s failure to communicate extend far beyond budget matters. For years, Members have bemoaned DOE’s aversion to advertising its science discoveries on the Hill. Many other agencies do it, some, like NASA, with extraordinary pizzazz.

But DOE recently threw up roadblocks when national facilities users tried to organize educational presentations that relied on Department funds and laboratory amenities, including, as bizarre as it may sound, telephones and printing services.

Isolating itself from Congress and making it difficult for elected officials to see first hand how researchers–some of them, their own constituents–have used DOE funds to advance science, medicine and the economy is hard to fathom.

Isolation is a term that also fits DOE’s policy on meeting with science advocates, who happen to be registered lobbyists. (Disclaimer: I am one.) Although the Obama White House now has an open door policy regarding meetings with lobbyists, the Department of Energy doesn’t. That’s bad policy. It’s also a violation of the First Amendment.

Call me a cockeyed optimist–credit Richard Rodgers–but I remain confident that Chu’s team will pursue the needed reforms. Still, their task is immense, the DOE bureaucracy has extraordinary inertia and the clock is running.

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Editor: Alan Chodos

October 2009 (Volume 18, Number 9)

Table of Contents

APS News Archives

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Articles in this Issue
APS-Led Project Receives $6.5M NSF Grant
Climate Statement Gets Renewed Scrutiny
Members Elect Robert Byer to APS Presidential Line
Air Force Restrictions Impact Adaptive Optics
Chu Lays Out Ambitious Plan for Energy Research
Wise Old Proton Saved in Stirring Tale
Letters to the Editor
The Back Page
Members in the Media
This Month in Physics History
Zero Gravity: The Lighter Side of Science
Inside the Beltway
Education Corner
Focus on APS Topical Groups