Mayor Bloomberg announced yesterday that NYU’s proposal for its Center for Urban Science and Progress (CUSP) has been named a recipient of some city funding, and will open for classes next year. The center for research and graduate study right next to NYU-Poly in Downtown Brooklyn will focus on technology to “address the challenges of an increasingly urbanized planet.” Read all about it here.
Bloomberg also announced the director of CUSP—a theoretical physicist named Steven Koonin with a prestigious background as the Undersecretary for Science in the U.S. Department of Energy and the Chief Scientist at BP.
Koonin, a prominent figure in the science world and a winner of both the Humboldt Senior U.S. Scientist Award and the E. O. Lawrence Award, has an impressive list of interests, including nuclear astrophysics; theoretical nuclear, computational, and many-body physics; and global environmental science. A Brooklyn native, Koonin received a physics degree from Caltech—where he was a professor for nearly thirty years and served as Provost until 2004—and his Ph.D in theoretical physics from MIT.
Koonin held his position at BP (formerly British Petroleum), the third largest energy company in the world, from 2004 to 2009. He spearheaded the company’s pursuit of long-term energy source planning, especially renewable and alternative energy sources, and most notably the development of biofuel technologies.
In 2009, The Washington Post reported that Koonin ‘runs on biofuels.’ He used $500 million at BP towards a lab for research for the energy source. Biofuel, an energy source derived from crops, has received huge support from the Obama administration in recent months.
“I’ve helped guide that company’s long-range technology strategy; and in particular, catalyzing a major business and research initiative in biofuels,” Koonin told senators, reported by The Washington Times.
But many environmental groups, including the Environmental Protection Agency, have contended that biofuels are in fact harmful to the environment because, while they offer an alternative to fossil fuels, they also encourage monoculture, soil degradation, and agricultural runoff.
At BP, Koonin also managed research programs at several universities, including the Energy Biosciences Institute at the University of California Berkeley and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. During the Gulf Oil Spill, many speculated that Koonin’s ties to BP presented a conflict of interest, criticizing the government for being too easy on BP. However, Koonin was never formally accused of any underhanded conduct.
In 2010, The Washington Times reported that Koonin was paid $1.8 million in BP compensation and bonus money during 2008 and the first few months of 2009, in addition to substantial income from consulting fees and BP stock profits.
Koonin reportedly received this payout after leaving BP in 2009. He became the Department of Energy’s Undersecretary for Science, appointed by President Obama later that year. But he left this post in 2011, ScienceInsider reported, “after an unhappy stint in a poorly defined position.” Apparently, the job offered him little authority over his own budget, which proved frustrating.
Now, this prominent scientist will return to his native Brooklyn to direct CUSP, as President John Sexton and Mayor Bloomberg announced excitedly yesterday at a press conference.