Feds at Work: Transforming energy research laboratories

Expanded facilities that have led to breakthroughs in superconductivity, nanotechnology, X-ray imaging

Meeting our country’s long-term energy needs in sustainable, environmentally friendly ways requires cutting-edge research facilities where the world’s top academic and industry scientists can work together to achieve important breakthroughs.

Patricia Dehmer (Photo by Aaron Clamage)

The Energy Department’s Patricia Dehmer, deputy director of the Office of Science, has helped meet these goals, using her management and leadership skills to expand the number of government research facilities and lay the groundwork for many scientific advances.

“Pat has revolutionized the department’s approach to scientific research for energy,” said William Madia, vice president of the Energy Department’s Linear Accelerator Center at California’s Stanford University. “She has delivered major scientific facilities that renewed the national laboratories and will produce discoveries for decades.”

Under her leadership, the department has made significant advancements in fossil, solar, nuclear and renewable energy as well as energy efficiency.

Her work is “a very, very big deal,” said Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz.

“It is the backbone of a huge amount of research in the U.S,” he said. “It has great consequence for American science.”

Dehmer is the senior career science official in an office that is the third-largest federal sponsor of basic research in the U.S., and the primary supporter of the physical sciences in the country. She relies on her in-depth science knowledge and management abilities to oversee six science programs ranging from basic energy sciences to nuclear physics.

She laid the groundwork for creating 32 research centers to study transformative energy technologies. She also marshaled support for some $3 billion in investments in major research facilities for scientists to study high-temperature superconductors, next-generation silicon chips and biological proteins on the smallest scales.

“The types of investments Pat has made have been influential in every energy science area,” said Eric Isaacs, University of Chicago

Overseeing the Energy Department’s science portfolio and expanding research capabilities comes with challenges, Dehmer said. Building new facilities requires “aligning all of the interests” and “getting everyone on board in the agency, within the administration, within Congress, and then with the laboratory or the university that will be constructing it.”

Dehmer acquired in-depth scientific expertise during a 23-year career as a research scientist working in atomic, molecular, optical and chemical physics at Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago, Illinois.

She oversaw the planning, design and construction of more than a dozen major projects, including a unique, $1.4 billion research facility at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. It produces the most intense neutron beams in the world, and scientists use it for research on biotechnology, magnetism, superconductivity, nanotechnology and complex fluids.

Dehmer also helped establish DOE’s five Nanoscale Science Research Centers, the premier centers for scientists doing interdisciplinary research at the nanoscale — the size of one-billionth of a meter.

She also spearheaded the reconstruction of a major laboratory at Stanford that provides extremely bright X-rays scientists use in research to probe matter on the scale of atoms and molecules. And she is credited with starting major energy research facilities at Stanford and at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York that provide state-of-the-art capabilities for X-ray imaging and high-resolution energy analysis.

“The types of investments Pat has made have been influential in every energy science area,” said Eric Isaacs, provost and professor of physics at the University of Chicago. “In terms of scientific leadership, she’s one of the top people in the country.”

At Energy, Dehmer helped shift the department’s approach to energy research with the creation of the Energy Frontier Research Centers program. It competitively awards five-year grants to teams that are accelerating research designed to solve some of the nation’s most critical energy challenges.

Thirty-two of these centers run in partnership with universities, national laboratories, nonprofit organizations and for-profit firms engaged in high-risk, high-reward research aimed at developing transformative energy technologies. The program has “inspired a generation of young scientists to tackle energy challenges,” Madia said.

Thom Mason, director of the Oak Ridge lab said Dehmer has “cracked the code” at Energy on how to expand and improve research capacity.

“Her role doesn’t always have a spotlight,” he said, “but if you look at the things that have happened, her fingerprints are all over them.”

Patricia Dehmer is a finalist for a 2016 Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal, or Sammies. Each year, the Partnership for Public Service honors federal employees whose remarkable accomplishments make our government and our nation stronger. For the second time, we will also present the annual “People’s Choice” award. Please vote for the person or team you find most inspiring. (Voting closes at 11:59 p.m. EST on September 9, 2016.)

Like what you read? Give Partnership for Public Service a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.