Paul Dabbar (center) at a visit last fall to the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois
When the White House nominated Paul Dabbar as the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) undersecretary for science last July, many scientists had no idea who he was. However, he knew plenty about DOE. A 1989 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Dabbar sailed on nuclear submarines for 5 years before earning an MBA from Columbia University. He spent 21 years as an investment banker at JPMorgan Chase, where he focused on nuclear energy and emerging energy technologies.
Dabbar oversees DOE’s basic research arm, the $6.3 billion Office of Science. He also is responsible for technology transfer and DOE’s $7.1 billion environmental management (EM) effort, which aims to clean up pollution at old nuclear weapons sites. DOE’s applied energy programs and the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which maintains the United States’s arsenal of nuclear weapons, answer to other undersecretaries. Dabbar spoke recently with ScienceInsider about his unusual background and his vision for DOE’s scientific efforts.
The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Q: How did you go from the nuclear Navy and Wall Street to undersecretary for science?
A: In fifth grade I decided I wanted to go study nuclear engineering and work on submarines, and that I wanted to go to the Naval Academy.
At the Naval Academy, I took a broad range of classes dealing with nuclear physics and engineering and design, but also with what they would call alternate energy systems—fusion, renewables, alternate designs to light-water nuclear reactors. … [Then] I did research at the Johns Hopkins [University] Applied Physics Laboratory [in Laurel, Maryland].
I enjoyed being a submarine operator and dealing with the practical issues of xenon spikes and burning fuel and refueling, etc. But I also enjoyed seeing the sun. After I finished up in the Navy, I wanted to be involved in the broader energy sector. So I went to business school.
Q: Can you elaborate?
A: My work had a couple of themes— broad energy technologies and science strings around commercialization and nuclear. I was involved with commercialization around high-temperature superconductors. I also dealt with concentrating solar startup companies and a number of wind start-up companies. I was even involved with trying to commercialize fusion. On each