President Trump’s pick of a Houston, Texas -based investment adviser to run a scientific research wing of the U.S. Energy Department is puzzling some scientists. It is similar to the President’s choice of Oklahoma Congressman Jim Bridenstine to lead NASA where critics wondered whether a politician could and should lead the space agency.
Now they wonder if S. Lane Genatowski is capable of running the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy at the DOE. It’s a program that uses government funding to push promising technologies from the lab into the marketplace. According to the publication Science, the agency has typically been headed by scientists with an emphasis in chemistry and engineering.
Genatowski has none of that background and it leads scientists to wonder what direction he would take the agency if he is confirmed by the U.S. Senate to be ARPA-E’s third director. He is a founder and partner at Dividend Advisors, a firm that focuses on investments in utilities, real estate and railroads. Genatowski once worked as an investment banker for J.P. Morgan Chase, Bank of America and Wells Fargo.
ARPAl-E is also an agency that President Trump proposed to eliminate but Congress turned around and increased its funding to $353 million this year. The agency is modeled after the military’s DARPA or Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
Here is how Warren Cornwall at Science reported the doubt about Genatowski:
“Historically all the directors of … ARPA-E have [had] strong technical backgrounds,” says chemist Ellen Williams of the University of Maryland in College Park, who served as the agency’s second director under former President Barack Obama from 2014 until early 2017. So Genatowski would be a departure, observers say. And although his background could be helpful in evaluating which technologies might appeal to investors, his apparent lack of technical expertise could be a weakness.
“Based on his background it doesn’t seem like a good fit to the job, and it is an important job,” says David Hart, a science policy expert at George Mason University in Arlington, Virginia, who has studied ARPA-E. Judging both a technology’s technical and commercial potential, he notes, is “very challenging. … The nominee seems to have some knowledge about energy markets but not really the technical background.”
Genatowski is a founder and partner at Dividend Advisors. The company’s website describes it as focusing on investments in utilities, real estate, and railroads. Genatowski previously worked as an investment banker for companies including J.P. Morgan Chase, Bank of America, and Wells Fargo, according to a White House press release and the company website. (Genatowski could not be reached, DOE did not respond to a request for comment, and
ARPA-E recruits top researchers in various fields to work inside the agency as program directors for 3- to 5-year stints. In the past, Williams says, the director has played an integral role recruiting program directors. And an agency head who lacks a strong scientific reputation could find it harder to lure talent, says Pierre Azoulay, an expert in research management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. Azoulay served on a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine committee that published a 2017 report that evaluated and praised ARPA-E’s work.
Efforts to recruit top talent are “more likely to be effective if they come from someone who commands their respect based on their accomplishments from a technical standpoint,” Azoulay says. “That would be the thing that would worry me [about Genatowski].”