Head of Department of Energy’s Science Wing Sees It as a Driver of Change | Science



When President Joe Biden appointed Asmeret Asefaw Berhe as the seventh director of the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Science in April 2021, many scientists were surprised. Physicists have most often been tapped to lead the office, which is the United States’ largest funder of physical science and the premier builder of large scientific machines such as X-ray sources. By contrast, Berhe is a soil biogeochemist who studies the ability of dirt to absorb carbon. Born and raised in Eritrea, she is also the first person of color to lead the agency, which has an annual budget of $7.5 billion.

Although Berhe, who the Senate confirmed in May, may not fit the usual description of director, she is determined to leave her mark on the agency. She followed the lead of the Biden administration in pushing to expand diversity, equity and inclusion both in the Office of Science’s 10 national labs and in research sponsored by her. six research programs, such as advanced research in scientific computing, basic energy science and nuclear physics. Earlier this month, Berhe announced that every grant application to the agency must include a plan to help promote diversity and inclusion.

In an online press conference Oct. 25, Behre discussed the office’s budget, including an additional $13 billion that the recently passed CHIPS and Science Act authorized (but does not require) Congress to provide. give over the next 5 years. She also talked about multiple initiatives to improve diversity, such as the effort known as Reaching a New Energy Science Workforce (RENEW)which was launched this year to engage underrepresented students and researchers in the Office of Science 10 national laboratories.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What is your vision for the Office of Science?

A: This is a mission driven agency, so we have missions [from DOE] we are compelled to realize. Within this framework, my main objective is to ensure that in everything we do, we achieve the best possible support for science. And a big part of that is achieving as much of the requested credits for FY2023 as possible, and then getting as close to the allowed levels in CHIPS and science as possible.

My vision is also to ensure that people from all walks of life are served fairly with the work we do. It’s not just my personal goal. This is also the goal of the department and the Biden administration.

Another key priority is to ensure that Washington, D.C., policymakers, and everyone we interact with knows what the Office of Science does and why it matters to the nation’s economic progress, global competitiveness, and all the rest.

An important vision for me is to ensure that we lead in terms of the labs and facilities that we run, so that we can bring to the climate crisis all the resources we have to achieve as much of the goal of climate change as possible. administration of net zero emissions.

Q: In recent years, the DOE has launched multiple cross-functional efforts to try to bring the Office of Science’s notoriously “siloed” research programs together. Some people complain that these initiatives consume resources. Does the Office of Science have too many cross-functional efforts?

A: Many of these cross-cutting initiatives respond to critical and timely societal or scientific challenges that we need to address. And from a scientific point of view, these transversal initiatives cover really exciting areas at the interface of two or more programmes. Supporting these kinds of efforts has always really been part of how [the office] works. My goal is to ensure that we increase the main budget, so that we can do everything that we think is important.

Q: In 2003, Ray Orbach, then director of the Office of Science, laid out a plan for major facilities to be built over the next 20 years, and the DOE largely stuck to it. Is it time to make a new one?

A: Maybe. It was a very important plan. I am careful because this kind of plan is not something that should be concluded in a hurry. This requires in-depth reflection with all our stakeholders. So we will continue to think about it because the importance is well recognized. Stay tuned.

Q: Improving equity and inclusion has been a difficult challenge, especially in physics. How can the agency best extend its reach?

A: It is extremely important that we address as many elements of this problem as possible. For example, for many years efforts have been made to recruit students [from diverse backgrounds]. In partnership with national laboratories, we are now focusing not only on recruitment, but also on retaining people and ensuring that the students we train can enter and stay in the scientific workforce and even progress to the leadership.

Another part of the effort is to create pathways and opportunities for members of historically underserved and underrepresented institutions in our portfolio to form partnerships with labs and facilities, not just to develop the workforce- but also to strengthen the capacities of these institutions. That’s what RENEW and FAIR are for. [FAIR, which launches next year, aims to build energy and climate research capacity at minority-serving institutions.]

The Office of Science is a major catalyst for science in the United States. We have a major role to play and we take this responsibility very seriously.

Q: How do you respond to critics who claim these efforts undermine meritocracy?

A: It doesn’t have to be inclusion or meritocracy. There is no reason to sacrifice one for the other. Our goal is to strive for inclusive excellence. We are tackling these issues because these inequalities have become so glaring that we cannot ignore them. Let’s do what we can now to break down barriers and allow the wider community to be a part of what we do, so we have access to the most talented workforce possible. Why limit yourself? There is no reason not to be inclusive.

Q: Like you, my father was an immigrant and spent his entire career as a physicist at DOE’s Argonne National Laboratory. You run one of the largest research agencies in the country. What does this mean for you personally?

A: It means a lot that I can not only progress in my studies and my academic career, but also be in this position. It’s no exaggeration to say that the United States is one of the few places in the world where immigrants could do what your father and I were able to do. Where I was born, there’s no way I would have built the kind of scientific career that I have. But knowing that [the circumstances of your birth] don’t have to decide your potential, that if someone gives you the opportunity to build that kind of scientific career, that’s incredibly American, isn’t it? And it’s exciting in many ways.

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