BP Chief Scientist Steven E. Koonin was nominated late last week to run the Department of Energy's science operations. As under secretary for science, Koonin will lead the Office of Science as well as 10 national labs. The Office of Science also provides R&D funding support to seven other labs and oversees their operations jointly with other DOE programs.
Koonin, a physicist, has been BP's chief scientist since 2004 and is responsible for guiding the company's long-range technology strategy, particularly in alternative and renewable energy sources, according to DOE. Before BP, Koonin had a 29-year career at the California Institute of Technology as a theoretical physics professor, including a nine-year term as the institute's provost.
He is familiar with federal science, having served on advisory bodies for the National Science Foundation, the Department of Defense, as well as the Department of Energy and its national laboratories. Koonin's research interests include theoretical and computational physics, as well as global environmental science. He did his undergraduate work at Caltech and has a Ph.D. from Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Koonin was BP's top scientist in 2007 when the oil company agreed to provide $500 million to the University of California, Berkeley, and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory for a new biofuels research center to be built at the national lab, which was then led by current Energy Secretary Steven Chu.
A long-time supporter of biofuels, Koonin, in a 2006 editorial in Science, said the advantages of biofuels had been stalled "because the world's scientific and engineering skills have not yet been focused coherently on the challenges involved. It is now time to do that through a coordination of government, university, and industrial R&D efforts, facilitated by responsible public policies.
"In the jargon of the petroleum industry," he said, "the 'size of the prize' is too large to ignore."
Koonin's appointment, along with that of Chu, a physicist and Nobel Prize winner, appears to mark a trend by the Obama Administration to put scientists in key DOE leadership slots. Two weeks ago, another scientist, Kristina M. Johnson, was nominated to become under secretary and would oversee fossil energy, nuclear energy, environmental management, energy efficiency, and renewable energy offices.
She is currently the provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at Johns Hopkins University. Previously, Johnson served as the dean of Duke University's Pratt School of Engineering from 1999 to 2007 where she helped to set up interdisciplinary efforts in photonics, bioengineering and biologically inspired materials, and energy and the environment. Johnson is a doctorate-level electrical engineer with more than 129 U.S. and foreign patents or patents pending.