DOE Basic Energy Sciences Stands at a Moment of Transition

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Publication date: 
1 March 2017
Number: 
25

The meeting last week of the Department of Energy’s Basic Energy Sciences Advisory Committee was the last to be chaired by chemistry professor John Hemminger. While DOE awaits direction from the Trump administration, the committee reflected on its ongoing work to guide the activities of DOE’s Basic Energy Sciences program.

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BESAC Chair John Hemminger
John Hemminger, a chemistry professor at the University of California, Irvine, will step down as BESAC chair on March 31. He has held the position since 2003.

(Image credit – Photograph by Steve Zylius, courtesy of UC Irvine)

Used with permission of UC Irvine media relations

On Feb. 23 and 24, the Department of Energy’s Basic Energy Sciences Advisory Committee (BESAC) held its first meeting of 2017. The committee provides external advice to DOE’s Basic Energy Sciences (BES) program, which manages a $1.85 billion research portfolio and oversees DOE-funded user facilities. BESAC also serves as an important conduit for BES’s numerous stakeholders to provide input into the program’s governance.

BESAC and BES coping with change on multiple levels

This latest meeting of BESAC marked a moment of major transition for the committee. BESAC Chair John Hemminger, a chemistry professor at the University of California, Irvine, is set to step down on March 31, having led the committee since 2003. His successor will be physicist Persis Drell, the Stanford University provost and a former director of SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory.

The meeting was also the first since the retirement of Pat Dehmer, who served as BES director from 1995 to 2007, and, from 2007 until this past November, as the DOE Office of Science’s deputy director for science programs. During their long tenures, Dehmer and Hemminger have played important roles in guiding the growth and evolution of the BES program.

Meanwhile, DOE and its stakeholders are waiting to see what changes the new Trump administration will bring. The Office of Science is currently anticipating the nomination of a new director, a position subject to confirmation by the Senate. DOE’s new deputy director for science programs, Steve Binkley, is for the moment doubling as acting director of the office. At the BESAC meeting, Binkley said that DOE is in a “holding pattern” while it waits for Congress to confirm Rick Perry as secretary of energy, which could happen as soon as this week.

Concerning the DOE budget, Binkley reported that, according to “snippets” of information he had received, Congress may well extend to a full year the continuing resolution presently holding fiscal year 2017 spending at fiscal year 2016 levels. He said the administration could nonetheless try to make certain changes at the department during the latter half of the fiscal year. Binkley also said that, while the budgeting process for fiscal year 2018 has begun, he had no direct knowledge of the administration’s plan for DOE’s budget.

News reports emerging after the BESAC meeting concluded have indicated that the president’s budget request will call for steep cuts to non-defense discretionary spending.

Committee reviews BES’s key deliberative mechanisms

Befitting the moment of transition facing BESAC, the meeting included presentations reflecting on two of the most important tools for informing BES’s scientific agenda: the BES-run Basic Research Needs (BRN) workshops and BESAC’s delineation of research grand challenges.

George Crabtree, a physicist at Argonne National Laboratory, recounted that the BRN workshop format extends back to 2002. He pointed to the particular influence of the large “Basic Research Needs to Assure a Secure Energy Future” workshop held in October 2002, and explained the importance of its objective to identify research that could lead to “transformative” technologies. The resulting BRN report compiled 37 proposed research directions. Subsequent reports have focused on specific subject areas, such as the most recent report, “Quantum Materials for Energy Relevant Technology,” released in December 2016.

Northwestern University chemistry professor Mark Ratner and Hemminger provided an overview of BES’s grand challenge framework established in the 2007 BESAC report, “Directing Matter and Energy: Five Challenges for Science and the Imagination.” That report identified five difficult but achievable goals that could inform long-term research programs:

  • Controlling materials processes at the level of electrons;
  • Synthesizing new forms of matter with tailored properties;
  • Understanding and controlling material properties emerging from complex atomic and electronic interactions;
  • Creating technologies inspired by biomolecular systems; and
  • Characterizing and controlling matter in non-equilibrium states.

Ratner reported that the grand challenges report had played a key role in informing the development of DOE’s Energy Frontier Research Center (EFRC) program, as well planning for the construction of next-generation x-ray light sources. He also noted that DOE’s decision not to back dedicated crystal growth facilities was the one place where the report “failed miserably” to influence department planning. Hemminger reported that a 2015 review and update of the grand challenges had found that the original set had all remained relevant, requiring modification but not replacement.

BES planning work continuing through transition

While new BES initiatives are on hold pending the approval of a new DOE budget, the BES program is continuing to develop its priorities for future research. BES Director Harriet Kung reported that BES plans to hold a BRN workshop on next-generation electrical energy storage in March and another on catalysts in May, both updating BRN reports released in 2007. A third workshop on nuclear energy, not yet scheduled, will update a BRN report released in 2006. The BES program also plans to release reports from three recent BRN workshops dedicated, respectively, to synthesis science, instrumentation science, and science related to the “energy–water nexus.”

Matt Tirrell, a professor of molecular engineering at the University of Chicago and deputy laboratory director for science at Argonne, was on hand to preview the energy–water nexus report. He described it as focusing primarily on the development of technologies and processes relating to the management and consumption of water resources. He said that five provisional “themes” had emerged from the workshop, each suggesting a high-priority focus for research:

  • Fundamental understanding of complex fluids;
  • Interfaces and transport phenomena in microscopically confined environments;
  • “Rational” design of new materials to exploit specific material–fluid interactions;
  • Science to advance separation for water purification and treatment; and
  • “Revolutionary” approaches to manipulating water within natural environments

Other presentations at the meeting included an overview of x-ray light sources worldwide, an update on operations of the National Synchrotron Light Source II, and a preview of a forthcoming review report on DOE’s Laboratory Directed R&D program. Slide decks from all presentations at the meeting can be accessed here.

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