Source: Washington Examiner | John Siciliano |
Energy Secretary Rick Perry is big on coal, natural gas and nuclear energy, but he also has a passion for veterans that he wants to use to change the face of U.S. healthcare.
The energy agency is typically seen as being “about promoting fossil fuels, we’re about doing our duty to the country from the standpoint of promoting [liquefied natural gas], to be a part of a civil nuclear energy program that has global implications from the standpoint of making energy, and clean energy, available around the world,” Perry told the Washington Examiner in an interview.
“But there’s 17 national labs out there that have this unique ability to engage in a lot of incredibly important arenas,” he said. And the agency wants to explore new avenues of influence beyond energy.
About 40 percent of Energy Department employees are veterans. “If that’s not the highest percentage in federal government, it’s certainly one of highest,” Perry said. “Once you understand what this agency is about, once you understand who it’s populated by, then this whole issue of why DOE is involved in veterans’ health becomes a lot easier to understand.”
“One of our focuses is on post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injury, then it doesn’t take you long to expand that concentric circle of influence out to the NFL, to a mom that has a daughter that plays soccer,” Perry said. “It may be football, it may be soccer, first responders who are out there getting head injuries, or getting concussed in their day-to-day operations of what they do.”
“There is just this massive amount of people who can be well-served by what we’re talking about doing,” Perry said.
The programs the Energy Department is working on started during the Obama administration, including the Million Veteran Program, or MVP, which looks to use the data from volunteers to map health problems among veterans.
That effort will be expanded upon by another program called ACTIV, Advanced Computational and Translational Initiative for Veterans, which is part of the agency’s “exascale” computing initiative. Exascale refers to a type of supercomputer that is 50 times faster than current computers, and the Trump administration asked Congress to increase funding for it in its fiscal 2019 budget request.
Perry was questioned in his confirmation hearings last year over whether he would continue the work that his predecessor, Ernest Moniz, started in advancing computing technologies. Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., wanted his assurance that he would support a move to break down barriers at the agency to help accelerate the development of exascale.
Others on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee asked whether he would support programs at the Energy Department meant to help veterans, in which he answered in the affirmative.
“You know what’s going on out there; we’re in a massive race today with exascale,” Perry said. “Exascale is machine learning; it’s the next step before we get really deep into artificial intelligence. It’s the ability to build these smart tools with big data.”
He said the challenge for computing has been the sheer amount of data out there.
The computers haven’t been “fast enough” or “big enough” to take all the massive amounts of data “and machine learn it to be able to put out at the other end a roadmap, if you will, on how to address issues like suicide prevention,” Perry said.
The MVP Champion and ACTIV programs will use the data to produce a blueprint of the health challenges facing veterans, and then apply that to the rest of the population. The effort is likened to mapping the human genome, when scientists were able to use advanced computing aided by the national labs to develop the first map of human DNA.
Part of Perry’s push has to do with his plans to reorganize the agency and make it work in cooperation with other parts of government, including the departments of Veterans Affairs, Health and Human Services, and Defense, all agencies that are supporting the data effort.
Perry said it’s a multiagency effort that he believes “doesn’t happen enough” in government. There are “some personal passion reasons” for moving this forward, he said. “There’s some professional reasons. And then, there are some policy reasons that these programs are so important — the deliverable here can be life-changing.”
The Energy Department is looking to push out its first accomplishment by the end of the year, according to the agency’s senior adviser on veterans, Morgan Luttrell.
Most of the VA’s data is at the Energy Department’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, getting ready for processing, Luttrell said.