DOE R&D Nominees Face Senate Committee

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Publication date: 
28 June 2018
Number: 
78

President Trump’s nominee to lead the Department of Energy’s Office of Science received bipartisan praise at a Senate confirmation hearing on June 26, while Democratic senators expressed concerns about his nominee to lead the department’s renewable energy R&D office.

On June 26, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a hearing to review President Trump’s nominations for four leadership positions at the Department of Energy. Among the nominations were Christopher Fall to direct the department’s $6.3 billion Office of Science and Daniel Simmons to lead its $2.3 billion Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE). The Office of Science is the largest funder of basic physical sciences research in the U.S., and EERE’s portfolio includes applied R&D in areas ranging from wind and solar energy generation to advanced materials and vehicle technologies.

Fall currently serves as the top official in DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy (ARPA–E), while Simmons is already the top official for EERE. The committee also reviewed the nominations of Teri Donaldson to be DOE’s inspector general and Karen Evans to lead the newly formed Office of Cybersecurity, Energy Security, and Emergency Response.

Committee Chair Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) said she was “very impressed with the breadth of experience [and] depth of qualifications” of all the nominees and thanked Fall and Simmons for attending Alaska National Lab Day in May. She also stressed that she “cannot understate the importance” of DOE’s energy innovation mission and said she hopes to advance all four nominations “as quickly as possible.”

Ranking Member Maria Cantwell (D-WA) said she is “pleased the president has nominated a scientist to lead the Office of Science.” However, she expressed concern about Simmons leading EERE. She noted that he previously worked at an organization that advocated abolishing the office.

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Christopher Fall

(Image credit – Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee)

Fall describes interagency experience, strategy for maintaining R&D leadership

Before entering government service, Fall received a Ph.D. in neuroscience from the University of Virginia and was a bioengineering faculty member at the University of Illinois at Chicago. In his opening statement, he recounted how he left academia eight years ago to pursue a one-year science policy fellowship, which led him to the Office of Naval Research (ONR) where he worked on innovation strategies. He later ran its international liaison office and became its deputy director of research for STEM and workforce programs.

In 2014, Fall left ONR to join the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), working in its National Security and International Affairs Division from August 2014 to 2017. For about half that time, Fall said, he led the division after its Senate-confirmed director departed. Fall then briefly returned to ONR, managing its basic research portfolio and serving as acting chief scientist before becoming the principal deputy director of ARPA–E in 2018.

Pointing to his experience at OSTP, Fall said he has a “deep appreciation for the larger context in which the Office of Science sits.” Fall told the committee his priorities for the office will match those already set out by Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Undersecretary for Science Paul Dabbar, citing exascale computing, engineering biology, artificial intelligence, microelectronics, and quantum information science as examples. Fall added,

These are all fields of intense international competition. The best basic science is done collaboratively with the smartest minds from around the world, but I do expect that the secretary will also ask me to assure that we are protecting our commercial and national security intellectual property appropriately.

Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) raised the subject of protecting intellectual property in a series of questions to Fall about the importance of maintaining U.S. leadership in science and technology.

Gardner first asked whether the U.S. government has good insight into what other nations are doing in R&D areas such as supercomputing and quantum computing. Fall replied that this was something OSTP “paid a great deal of attention to” while he was there, but suggested that “we could stand to have more resources on the intelligence side looking at issues of basic science and technology.”

Gardner then asked what should be done to prevent “leakage” of intellectual property to competitors. Fall replied that Perry has directed the department to look into this matter. Offering his personal view, Fall said,

Ultimately the answer is to out-innovate and out-compete in science, and that shorter term measures — trade issues, etc. — aren’t as effective in science and technology because information is fungible.

Simmons pressed on past statements, DOE reorganization proposal

In his opening statement, Simmons said three actions are “critical for the success of the technologies” supported by EERE: continuing to reduce their cost, improving the integration of intermittent power sources such as wind and solar into the grid, and adopting a broad “portfolio approach” to developing energy storage technologies.

Sen. Tina Smith (D-MN) pressed Simmons to reconcile his desire to lead EERE with his past career, which she said appeared to be “focused on working against renewable energy and climate science.” Before joining EERE, Simmons was vice president for policy at the Institute for Energy Research, a free-market oriented energy policy think tank. Sen. Angus King (I-ME) also sought assurances that he would not seek to undermine the mission of EERE.

Noting Simmons had previously criticized wind and solar energy for being more expensive than other energy sources, Smith asked if he believes cost should be the predominant factor in decision making about energy generation. Simmons replied that ensuring consumers can choose their energy sources is more important and said his priority at EERE would be to reduce the cost of renewable technologies to enable more people to use them.

Smith also asked him to explain the Trump administration’s proposal to slash EERE’s budget by over 50 percent. Simmons replied that if EERE focuses on early-stage R&D, “we can do a lot of good” with the proposed budget, pointing to the new Beyond Batteries Initiative. “That said,” Simmons continued, “Congress has the final say when it comes to appropriating dollars.”

Simmons also faced questions on the administration’s proposal to merge DOE’s applied energy offices and ARPA–E into a new Office of Energy Innovation. Asked by Gardner how the move would impact the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado, Simmons replied, “’I don’t know’ is the simplest answer that I can give. I don’t have more specifics on that plan other then what was released the other day.”

Murkowski said she plans to hold a hearing on the proposal soon. “There’s a lot of questions that we all have about how would this work,” she said.

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