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James M. Gentile

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Arun Majumdar Should Be Confirmed as Undersecretary of Energy

Posted: 02/23/2012 10:49 am

In late November, President Obama nominated Arun Majumdar to be Undersecretary of Energy, a vital position for a nation whose energy use and future energy strategy are essential to national security and economic preeminence. Nine days later, the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources held a confirmation hearing on the way to what was seen as a fast-track confirmation.

The hearing, as described by ScienceInsider, "amounted to a bipartisan 'competition for throwing bouquets,' noted Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), who joined his colleagues in heaping praise on the job that Majumdar has done since (Energy Secretary Steven) Chu plucked him two years ago from the Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to head the department's new blue-sky research shop." After the hearing, Committee Chair Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) was reported as saying that he hoped the nomination could be approved by the full Senate in December. The Committee approved the nomination on December 15.

More than two months later, Dr. Majumdar's confirmation has gone no further. Ironically, at the Committee hearing, Dr. Majumdar was quoted as saying that "the road to a secure future is to invent locally, make locally and sell globally. And we need to do this with fierce urgency." It's time for the Senate to demonstrate similar urgency and move this nomination forward.

Dr. Majumdar, currently Acting Undersecretary of Energy as well as Founding Director of the U.S. Department of Energy's ARPA-E (Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy), is eminently well-qualified for the job. He is a leading proponent of scientific innovation to enhance American energy and economic leadership, and he has performed admirably in his two current roles.

At the start of the Committee hearing, Committee Chair Bingaman said, according to ScienceInsider, "We're pleased to have such a highly qualified and experienced nominee, whom I fully support." The Committee's ranking Republican, Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), noting that Dr. Majumdar had been doing both jobs "with incredible energy and passion," said, "My question is, how has Dr. Majumdar learned to survive without any sleep?"

In making the nomination, The White House said: "Dr. Arun Majumdar has served as the Director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) since 2009. Previously, he was Associate Laboratory Director for Energy and Environment at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and a professor of mechanical engineering and materials science and engineering at the University of California, Berkeley. His research career has focused on the science and engineering of energy conversion, transport, and storage, ranging from the molecular and nanoscale level to large energy systems. He has served on the advisory committee of the National Science Foundation's engineering directorate and the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. Dr. Majumdar was elected a member of the National Academy of Engineering in 2005." One wonders what more we could expect of a nominee.

Next week, from February 27 to 29, ARPA-E will be holding its 2012 Energy Innovation Summit. The event is "designed to bring together key players from across the energy ecosystem -- researchers, entrepreneurs, investors, corporate executives, and government officials -- to share ideas for developing and deploying the next generation of energy technologies. The Summit's unique combination of leaders makes it the perfect forum for developing energy solutions that will enable America to out-innovate our global competitors."

Speaking at the Summit will be, among others, such prominent industry leaders as Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, FedEx Chairman & CEO Frederick Smith, Xerox Chairman & CEO Ursula Burns, former Walmart President & CEO Lee Scott, and MIT President Susan Hockfield.

While the focus of the event will be on innovation, the corridor talk will inevitably be about Dr. Majumdar's nomination and what's holding it up. Wouldn't it be impressive if the U.S. Senate were to approve Dr. Majumdar's nomination before the Summit begins and allow the attendees to focus solely on "enabling America to out-innovate our global competitors"?

James M. Gentile is president and CEO of Research Corporation for Science Advancement (www.rescorp.org), America's oldest foundation devoted wholly to science, which is now celebrating its 100th anniversary of advancing science.