As we think about the challenges all of us have faced over the last year from the pandemic’s impact on public health and the global economy, we should recognize that there still have been some bright lights – positive changes that we have been able to achieve through the missions of our community.

Building upon decades of discovery, the Department of Energy (DOE) and its National Labs have continued to drive progress for humanity, particularly in 2020 through discovery of COVID-19 therapeutics and vaccines. 

The DOE enterprise has a long history of making breakthroughs in life sciences, starting with post-Manhattan Project work in biology. Over the course of discovery in life sciences, the Department stood up the Joint Genome Institute in 1997 to unite expertise and resources in DNA sequencing, informatics, and technology development that were pioneered at the genome centers at Lawrence Berkeley, Lawrence Livermore, and Los Alamos National Labs. 

The significant economies of scale achieved in doing so enabled the DOE enterprise to be the first to publish the sequence analysis of several portions of the Human Genome. Those efforts significantly contributed to the overall Human Genome Project (HGP), which mapped the complete human genome. And while most of the community could not clearly see from the outset the potential impacts of that discovery, everyone was certain amazing things would come from it. 

After the completion of the HGP, now-Nobel Laureate Dr. Jennifer Doudna began pioneering research at UC Berkeley. The Lab Director of Lawrence Berkeley National Lab (LBNL) saw potential in her efforts and allocated Lab Directed Research and Development funds to her early work. In the following years, as she conducted further research into Crispr editing techniques, Dr. Doudna utilized facilities at LBNL, SLAC, and Brookhaven National Lab in making her groundbreaking discoveries in gene editing.

Those DOE-supported life science discoveries, in addition to large scale imaging and other user facilities across the DOE complex, provided indispensable foundations for recent work of the life science community that developed pharmaceutical responses to COVID-19 in less than a year, versus the 4+ years that it likely would have taken without those discoveries (given the fastest vaccine development cycles of the past). As a result, it is likely that millions of lives globally can be saved, and the pandemic’s economic impact significantly mitigated.

No matter what your area of discovery or technology development may be, everyone in our community should feel some measure of pride as we reflect on the benefits to society of the DOE enterprise and discovery science support, especially as they were manifested over the past year.

Paul M. Dabbar
Paul Dabbar was the Under Secretary for Science, served as the Energy Department’s principal advisor on fundamental energy research, energy technologies, and science.
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