Under Secretary of Energy for Science: Who is Steven Koonin?

Monday, May 04, 2009

The choice of Steven E. Koonin, a longtime physics professor at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and, since 2004, senior scientist for British Petroleum, to lead the Office of Science in the Department of Energy is viewed by those in the alternative energy field as a sign that President Barack Obama is serious about ramping up the nation’s production of biofuels. As the Undersecretary of Science, Koonin will oversee the running of the national laboratory system, which conducts scientific research into both civilian and military-related projects.

 
Born in Brooklyn, New York, Koonin went to college at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), where he received his Bachelor of Science in physics in 1972. He then attended MIT and graduated with a Ph.D. in theoretical physics in 1975.
 
He returned to Caltech in 1975 to join the faculty. While at Caltech, Koonin was a research fellow at the Niels Bohr Institute from 1976-1977, and an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Fellow from 1977-1979. He became a full professor at Caltech in 1981.
 
The year 1989 was important for two reasons for Koonin. He became chairman of the Caltech faculty (serving until 1991), and gained a national profile as part of a panel of experts that refuted claims by two scientists to have discovered cold fusion.
 
In 1995, Koonin was promoted to provost of Caltech. During his nine-year run as provost, Koonin oversaw an overhaul of Caltech’s biological sciences and expansion of neurosciences, as well as its involvement in projects such as the Thirty Meter Telescope.
 
In 1998 he received the E.O. Lawrence Award in Physics from the Department of Energy, and in 2002, he appeared before a congressional committee to help determine the potential threat of so-called “dirty bombs” to the nation’s security.
 
In 2004, Koonin left Caltech (technically on a leave of absence) to become chief scientist for oil giant BP, responsible for guiding the world’s second largest oil company’s long-range technology strategy, particularly in alternative and renewable energy sources. He remained at BP until his appointment to take over the Office of Science.
 
Koonin has been a member of the Council for Foreign Relations and The Trilateral Commission, and has served on a number of advisory committees for the National Science Foundation, the Energy Department, and the Department of Defense and its various national laboratories, along with JASON, an independent group of scientists that was first formed during the Cold War to provide the federal government with scientific analysis of sensitive national security projects. He is a fellow of the American Physical Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. His research interests include theoretical nuclear, many-body, and computational physics, nuclear astrophysics, and global environmental science.
 
Koonin is a longtime colleague of Steven Chu, the new secretary of energy. Both Koonin and Chu played major roles in setting up a $500-million industry-university alliance between BP, the University of California at Berkeley, and the University of Illinois in 2007.
-Noel Brinkerhoff
 
21st Century Provost (Caltech News)
Getting Serious About Biofuels (by Steven E. Koonin, Science)
Sustainable Ethanol Industry Rapidly Forming in U.S. (by Tonya Vinas, Lean and Green News)

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