By Morgan Disbrow-Monz, GSA Science Policy Fellow
On May 10, 2022 the Senate confirmed Dr. Asmeret Asefaw Berhe as the Director of the Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science. Dr. Berhe was first nominated on April 22, 2021, and then renominated in 2022 after the full Senate did not hold a vote on her nomination in 2021. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee voted 12-8 on 8 March 2022 to advance her nomination to the Senate floor.
The DOE Office of Science, which has an annual budget of approximately $7 billion, leads the Nation’s scientific research for energy and is the government’s largest funder of basic research in the physical sciences. The Office manages its interdisciplinary portfolio through six program offices: 1) Advanced Scientific Computing Research, 2) Basic Energy Sciences, 3) Biological and Environmental Research, 4) Fusion Energy Sciences, 5) High Energy Physics, and 6) Nuclear Physics. Additionally, the Office of Science oversees 10 of the Nation’s 17 national labs.
As expressed by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chair, Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV), in his opening remarks at Dr. Berhe’s first confirmation hearing, “Although it is named the Department of Energy, science has always been at the core of the department…The Office of Science lies at the heart of the Department’s science mission. The Office’s mission by law is to deliver the scientific discoveries, capabilities and major scientific tools to transform the understanding of nature and to advance the energy, economic and national security of the United States. That is no small task. It is clear that you [Dr. Berhe] have the scientific credentials that this job requires.”
Dr. Berhe’s nomination to the Director position highlights the Biden Administration’s emphasis on climate change research. Dr. Berhe is a professor of soil biogeochemistry and the Ted and Jan Falasco Chair in Earth Sciences and Geology at the University of California, Merced. She is also the interim Associate Dean for Graduate Education. Her research lies at the intersection of soil science, climate change, global change science, and political ecology, with an emphasis on understanding the processes that regulate organic matter (carbon) accumulation and loss in soils. Additionally, Dr. Berhe is recognized for her significant work advancing diversity, equity and inclusion and anti-harassment and anti-bullying efforts, including serving as a co-principal investigator in the ADVANCEGeo partnership. Dr. Berhe earned her B.S. from the University of Asmara in Water Conservation, an M.S.c. from Michigan State University in Political Ecology, and her Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkley in Biogeochemistry. She is a Fellow of the Geological Society of America and the 2019 recipient of the Society’s Randolph W. “Bill” and Cecile T. Bromery Award.
At her confirmation hearings, several Senators on the Energy Committee, such as Ranking Member John Barrasso (R-WY), expressed concern that Dr. Berhe’s research in soil science does not align with one of the major fields supported by the DOE Office of Science, nor does she have experience running a large organization. Those in support of her confirmation, however, cited her prestigious academic record, and highlighted the importance of her work with regards to the DOE and specifically climate change research. Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV), with regards to Dr. Berhe’s nomination hearing, stated, “I believe all [the nominees before the committee] are well-qualified by their training and experiences for the positions to which they have been nominated,” and Senator John Hickenlooper (D-CO), after questioning Dr. Berhe on carbon sequestration, concluded “It is an exciting time. I think you’re going to be the right person in the right place.”