FYI: Science Policy News

Leadership Turning Over Across DOE Science Office and National Labs

JUN 07, 2023
In the past year, leadership transitions have either taken place or been underway in several programs within the Department of Energy’s Office of Science as well as at five of the national labs that the office oversees. In addition, a recent reorganization of the office has dissolved what had been its top civil service position.
Will Thomas
Spencer R. Weart Director of Research in History, Policy, and Culture

The Department of Energy headquarters in Washington, DC.

(Department of Energy)

Several top leaders have departed the Department of Energy’s Office of Science over the past year and the directors of half the 10 national labs overseen by the office have either left or plan to leave soon. While new leaders have been appointed to some of these roles, others remain filled by officials serving in an acting capacity.

There is no indication of any singular cause behind this turnover, nor of any link between developments within the office and at the labs. However, in a letter last month to Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, House Science Committee Republicans argued the office’s departures are a consequence of the Biden administration’s prioritization of applied R&D. “Recently, as members of the scientific community have become increasingly frustrated with the DOE’s lack of adequate support for this office, we have seen an unprecedented exodus of senior career Office of Science employees,” they stated.

In a statement to FYI, Office of Science Director Asmeret Asefaw Berhe described these departures as retirements and noted that career staff members are carrying on as DOE moves through the “final stages” of selecting new leaders. She wrote, “We are fortunate to have teams of seasoned senior executives and program staff with excellent scientific and technical program expertise and experiences.”

Office of science dissolves principal deputy role

Among those who have left the Office of Science is Steve Binkley, who had been its top career official since 2016. In January, he moved to a role with DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration ahead of an office reorganization that took place in April. That reorganization eliminated the role of principal deputy director, which Binkley had held since it was reestablished during another reorganization in 2020 after having been previously dissolved in 2007.

For the first two years of the Trump administration, Binkley served as acting director of the Office of Science and reprised that role for over a year at the beginning of the Biden administration before Berhe’s confirmation by the Senate. The director is a presidential appointee by statute, but it has become increasingly common for the position to remain unfilled for extended periods.

With the dissolution of the principal deputy position, the top career positions in the office are the deputy directors for science programs and for operations, which continue to be respectively held by Harriet Kung and Juston Fontaine.

Functions previously under the principal deputy have been split between the two deputy directors. For instance, the Isotope R&D and Production program, once part of the Nuclear Physics science program, is now under Fontaine, while the Accelerator R&D and Production program is under Kung. The offices for workforce development programs and for workforce diversity, equity, and inclusion have been consolidated into a single office under Kung.

In a message to staff that DOE shared with FYI, Berhe explained the reorganization aims to streamline the Office of Science and improve cooperation between its science and operations branches. “I believe it will enable all of us to be more agile, responsive, and effective in our responsibilities going forward,” she wrote.

Significant shuffling among particle physics leaders

Many of the positions turning over within the Office of Science and the labs have related to the particle physics community.

In March 2022, Jim Siegrist retired as head of DOE’s High Energy Physics program after 11 years, and the department appointed Gina Rameika to succeed him in November. Rameika had previously held a series of roles at Fermilab, including as head of its Neutrino Division, and at the time of her appointment had been serving for a year and a half as co-leader of the international Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment project.

DUNE and two Fermilab-led projects — the Long-Baseline Neutrino Facility and the Proton Improvement Plan-II accelerator upgrade — comprise the largest U.S.-centered initiative in high energy physics since Congress canceled the Superconducting Super Collider in 1993. The LBNF/DUNE portion of the project is emerging from a period of severe cost growth, which contributed to DOE giving Fermilab a “C” rating for project and program management in fiscal year 2021.

Fermilab Director Nigel Lockyer stepped down in spring 2022 after nine years in the role and was recently named director of the Cornell Laboratory for Accelerator-based Sciences and Education. His successor is Lia Merminga, who previously led the PIP-II project. Fermilab’s management and operations contract expires at the end of 2024, and she is directing the lab as DOE puts the contract up for bid for the first time since 2006.

The directorship of Brookhaven National Lab has also turned over after Doon Gibbs retired this spring, having led the lab since 2013. He will be succeeded by JoAnne Hewett, a physicist and senior leader at SLAC who has also been serving as chair of the High Energy Physics Advisory Panel. Brookhaven is embarking on a major project to replace its Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider with the new Electron-Ion Collider. That effort is funded by DOE’s Nuclear Physics program, which continues to be led by Tim Hallman.

Fusion science at pivot point while ITER faces crisis

Jim Van Dam retired last September as head of DOE’s Fusion Energy Sciences program after five years in the role and 11 in the program. DOE announced on May 16 that his successor will be Pennsylvania State University nuclear engineering professor Jean Paul Allain, an expert in plasma–material interactions and member of DOE’s Fusion Energy Sciences Advisory Committee.

Allain arrives as the fusion program pivots toward supporting efforts aimed at fusion energy generation, even as serious problems confront the France-based ITER fusion facility project, in which the U.S. is a partner.

ITER revealed last year that it must repair major components of its facility, which will likely take years and increase the project cost by an as-yet undetermined amount. Amid this engineering crisis, there has also been extensive turnover among the project’s top ranks. Pietro Barabaschi took over as its director-general last October following the death of Bernard Bigot a year ago, and since his arrival ITER has posted job openings for a new chief scientist, chief engineer, construction project leader, head of procurement, head of finance and project control, and head of human resources.

Appointments for some roles still outstanding

Two program leadership positions within the Office of Science are awaiting new appointments.

Sharlene Weatherwax retired as head of the Biological and Environmental Research program last summer and senior program officials Gary Geernaert and Todd Anderson have each served for periods as the program’s acting head since then.

Barbara Helland retired near the beginning of this year as head of the Advanced Scientific Computing Research program. Senior program official Ceren Susut is currently acting as the program head.

At the national labs, Thomas Zacharia retired as director of Oak Ridge National Lab at the beginning of the year. He had worked at the lab for 35 years and been its director since 2017. The interim director of Oak Ridge is Jeff Smith, who has returned after retiring as the lab’s deputy for operations in 2021.

Last October, Chi-Chang Kao announced that, following a decade as director of SLAC, he will step down and return to research after a new director is named. In February, Adam Schwartz similarly announced that, after nine years as director of Ames National Lab, he will transition to a part-time role pending the naming of his successor.

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