Washington Update

Hearings Demonstrate DOE’s Critical Place in Scientific Ecosystem

By: Ellen Kuo
Thursday, August 12, 2021

The  Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a hearing on the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Science, focusing on its role in America’s research and development ecosystem. Committee Chair Joe Manchin (D-WV) emphasized the Senate’s efforts to accelerate scientific innovation with continual investment in and support of scientific research. Witnesses included J. Stephen Binkley, PhD, Acting Director and Principal Deputy Director of the Office of Science, who said, “We’re looking at numerous areas where investments could be made and have the most impact in innovation. They would include areas like quantum information science, microelectronics, and systems biology, essentially across the whole range of these, what we consider to be critical and emerging technologies. These technologies will open the door to new businesses, and there are significant research opportunities in these areas as well. We also need to invest in the scientific infrastructure to support those activities.” 

Another witness was Thomas Zacharia, Director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory. This lab is the largest of the science laboratories under the Office of Science. He spoke to the DOE Office of Science being the nation’s largest funder of the physical sciences, and its key roles in applied energy and national security because of its breakthroughs in basic science.  He also told the story of how in March 2020, DOE established the National Virtual Biotechnology Laboratory (NVBL) in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. NVBL connected scientists and engineers across the National Laboratory System who offered expertise from multiple fronts working on a variety of issues such as trace detection, design and discovery of antiviral drugs and vaccines, predictive modeling for emergency response and epidemiology, and molecular and structural biology. Within weeks, NVBL helped drive research that mitigated shortages in medical supplies, modeled and predicted pandemic spread, improved and validated testing procedures, assessed the transmittal of the virus in buildings, and supported the development of new antiviral drugs. Oak Ridge’s significant contributions included its neutron scattering resources at the High Flux Isotope Reactor and Spallation Neutron Source to combat COVID-19.

Leadership for the Office of Science was also a topic under consideration in the Senate during the first week of August. The U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a hearing to consider the nomination of Geraldine Richmond, PhD, to be Under Secretary for Science at DOE. She expressed concern about insufficient funding in American research and development and the needed investment in talent to compete globally. She also supported scientific and data integrity, acknowledged the problem of low pay for graduate students, and expressed a desire to improve the retention of young people in science from high school to college age.

Also under consideration was Asmeret Berhe to be Director of the DOE Office of Science. She holds a PhD in soil biogeochemistry. Her expertise prompted some concern since it was not in the energy sciences. Chair Manchin questioned her about how the Office of Science could responsibly use the increase in funds recently appropriated by the Energy Act of 2020 and the Endless Frontier Act. Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI) also asked her about her thoughts on preventing sexual harassment in the workplace, a topic of deep concern to the senator. Dr. Berhe noted that preventing harassment requires a community building approach to empower scientists to work together to establish a culture where everyone who enters is able to work in peace without exclusionary behavior and everyone understands what is correct behavior—something she engaged in while working in a National Science Foundation funded geo partnership. An archived video of the hearing can be found here.