U.S. energy research agency doesn’t need a scientist at the helm, Congress tells nominee | Science

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U.S. energy research agency doesn’t need a scientist at the helm, Congress tells nominee | Science

Lane Genatowski testified today before the Senate on his nomination to lead the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy.

U.S. Senate Committee on Energy & Natural Resources

The first reviews from Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on President Donald Trump’s choice of an investment banker to lead a cutting-edge energy research agency are in, and they are positive.

The senators who will judge the nomination of S. Lane Genatowski don’t seem to think that his lack of technical training will hinder his ability to direct the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E). At the same time, several Democrats wonder why anyone would volunteer to head an agency that his boss has said he wants to eliminate.

Genatowski’s confirmation hearing this morning before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources was also a chance for members from both parties to remind him that they really like the $350-million-a-year agency, which aims to transform promising research discoveries into marketable technologies. They expect him to fight for ARPA-E during negotiations over the president’s budget request; Congress has twice rejected Trump’s plan to eliminate or dramatically downsize the agency.

“I understand there is an expectation that you would say you will support the president’s budget,” noted Senator Lisa Murkowski (R–AK), who chairs the committee. “But my hope is that [after] you weigh in … we won’t be looking at a zeroing out of ARPA-E.”

Senator Angus King (I–ME) had already asked Genatowski the existential question: “If you support the president’s budget, then why are you sitting here?” Genatowski didn’t take the bait. “I’m here because I’d like the chance to run ARPA-E and help it become [the best] it can be.”

Senator Joe Manchin (D–WV) tried another approach to loosen Genatowski’s lips. “When they talked to you about the position [of ARPA-E director], did they say we’ve zeroed [the agency] out and we want you to put it bed, close it down?” Manchin wanted to know.

Again, Genatowski wasn’t going to go there. “Not for 1 minute,” he replied.

Manchin persisted. “Who actually vetted you?” he wondered. “And why were you picked?”

“I don’t know,” Genatowski confessed. “I spoke to people at the Department of Energy and at the White House.”

A nose for business deals

Genatowski shared the witness table at today’s 90-minute session with William Cooper, Trump’s choice to be DOE’s general counsel. A former senior congressional aide and energy lobbyist, Cooper repeatedly dodged questions about the policies of Energy Secretary Rick Perry, to whom they will both report.

Several senators wanted to know why Genatowski, a 67-year-old New York native, thought his background was a good fit for running ARPA-E. In response, he didn’t try to pass off his bachelor’s degree in economics from Hunter College or his Fordham University law degree as comparable to the science Ph.D.s held by his predecessors at the agency. But he did assert that the 30-plus years he has spent as an investment banker in the energy sector were good preparation for overseeing part of the agency’s mission, namely, to assess which technologies might be on the cusp of marketability.

To that end, he bragged about taking public one of the country’s first geothermal companies, which he said required him “to understand the technology they were using to acquire the thermal asset in the ground and then transfer its thermal content into a generator. At the time,” he said, “it was pretty cutting-edge.”

He made similar “risky investments” throughout his career, he claimed, using both his own and his clients’ money. Those decisions, he said, taught him how “to take what scientists do and translate it into a piece of equipment, a methodology, or a piece of IP [intellectual property] that can do things more efficiently.” He told lawmakers he hopes for the chance to apply that knowledge at ARPA-E, with the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and improving energy efficiency.

The first part of the equation—selecting the upstream research needed to pave the way for such breakthrough technologies—will be done by his scientific staff and outside experts, he admits. That’s what peer review is for, he noted.

His job will be to focus on what he calls “portfolio development,” which he defined as finding ways to “accelerate ARPA-E achievements being known to and available in the marketplace.” He said his expertise could be especially valuable in “marketing ideas and legal documentation.”

Senator Bill Cassidy (R–LA) threw two questions that fell neatly into Genatowski’s wheelhouse. What factors do you consider when deciding whether a particular technology is ripe for commercialization? Cassidy asked. And what’s a good batting average for the agency?

“I can give you an example,” Genatowski replied, clearly relishing the chance to flash his financial chops. “There’s a program on methane detection, which is very important in keeping greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere. It doesn’t require a large capital investment. But it required a big scientific investment to get the sensors to the point where they can detect methane on, says, a worker’s clothes.”

“You can take more risk on the front end,” he told Cassidy, “if you don’t need to spend a lot on the back end.”

Genatowski was also eager to share his thoughts on success rates, starting with a caveat. “It’s hard to quantify something like that when you’re still 10 to 15 years away from commercialization,” he began. “But if 100% of ARPA-E’s experiments end up in the marketplace, then we haven’t done a good job selecting the right science. And if it’s 0%, then we haven’t done a good job selecting the right commerce.”

Nonscientists welcome

ARPA-E is not well-known outside academic and entrepreneurial circles. And there is concern that Trump wants to hand over the reins to someone outside that community.

But Murkowski says they shouldn’t worry. “It’s important to recognize the skills sets [Genatowski] has,” she remarked after the hearing, pointing to his ability “to facilitate a project from incubation to the point of being commercialized.” She also played down the importance of first-hand scientific knowledge.

“Smart people [without scientific backgrounds] can look at scientific proposals and make a determination,” Murkowski said. “I don’t have a degree in political science. But that doesn’t mean I can’t be a U.S. senator. Do I feel that the [ARPA-E] job can only be filled by a scientist? No.”

The agency’s supporters are hoping that she’s right, and that Genatowski not only can keep the agency alive but that it can expand its record of commercializing new technologies. At the same time, one of Murkowski’s claims may give them pause.

“If he’s smart,” she told reporters, “he will make sure not only to meet with ARPA-E scientists but also with our DOE national lab directors. If you look, not all of them are scientists.” (Actually, every one of DOE’s 17 national laboratories is currently headed by a science Ph.D.)

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