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03/25/2009 07:00:00

Former Caltech Provost Steven Koonin Nominated for Under Secretary for Science

PASADENA, Calif.—President Barack Obama recently announced his intention to nominate Steven E. Koonin, former provost and professor of theoretical physics at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), as Under Secretary for Science in the Department of Energy. 

Along with the Koonin nomination, Obama also made other key administrative post nominations. Obama said, "This group of public servants joins my administration at a critical time in our nation's history.  As we work to rebuild our economy, achieve energy independence and keep Americans strong at home and abroad, I will rely on their trusted counsel and extensive experience on the issues.  I look forward to working with them in the months ahead."

If confirmed by the Senate as under secretary, Koonin would oversee the Department of Energy's basic science portfolio, which includes many of the national laboratories, as well as provide technical advice and coordination across the Department's energy applications and national security activities.

Caltech president Jean-Lou Chameau said, "Steve's nomination as under secretary comes at a vital point in our nation's progress toward energy independence.  During his tenure as Caltech's provost, Steve made contributions to Caltech that were long-reaching and left an enduring legacy.  His keen analytical abilities and problem-solving expertise will serve him well in his new position to help move the country forward in attainment of our energy goals."

Koonin served as Caltech's seventh provost from 1995 to 2004, and had a long affiliation with the Institute. Under his leadership, Caltech's research activities and academic initiatives increased significantly.  His achievements included the successful completion of a major capital campaign and fund-raising initiative for the advancement of Caltech's biological sciences; overseeing the hiring of approximately 110 of the Institute's 280 active professorial faculty, and the appointment of six chairs of Caltech's academic divisions; establishing relationships with major foundation donors whose contributions will help shape the Institute's activities throughout the next decade; and playing a leading administrative role in the planning and development of the Thirty-Meter Telescope—one of the world's largest telescopes.

In 2004, Koonin took a leave of absence from his faculty appointment at Caltech to serve as chief scientist for BP, based in London, where he was responsible for guiding the company's long-range technology strategy, particularly in alternative and renewable energy sources.

Koonin is a longtime member and past chair of JASON, advisors to the U.S. government on technical issues associated with national security.

He is 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 Department of Energy, and the Department of Defense and its various national laboratories.  He is a fellow of the American Physical Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.  His research interests include theoretical and computational physics, nuclear astrophysics, and global environmental science.

Koonin, who was born in Brooklyn, New York, earned his bachelor's degree in physics from Caltech in 1972, and a PhD in theoretical physics from MIT in 1975.  He joined the Caltech faculty in 1975, became a full professor of theoretical physics in 1981, and served as chair of the faculty from 1989 to 1991. 

Early in his career, Koonin was a research fellow at the Niels Bohr Institute from 1976 to 1977 and an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Fellow from 1977 to 1979.  In 1985 he received the Humboldt Senior U.S. Scientist Award and in 1999, the E. O. Lawrence Award in Physics from the Department of Energy.  Koonin currently holds a position as a visiting associate in physics at Caltech.

Written by Deborah Williams-Hedges