Thursday, December 11, 2008

A scientist for Energy Secretary?

Yes we can:
President-elect Barack Obama has chosen Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist who heads the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, to be the next energy secretary, and he has picked veteran regulators from diverse backgrounds to fill three other key jobs on his environmental and climate-change team, Democratic sources said yesterday.

Chu, the son of Chinese immigrants, won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1997 for his work in the "development of methods to cool and trap atoms with laser light." But, in an interview last year with The Washington Post, Chu said he began to turn his attention to energy and climate change several years ago. "I was following it just as a citizen and getting increasingly alarmed," he said. "Many of our best basic scientists [now] realize that this is getting down to a crisis situation."
While it may seem like common sense to have a scientist as energy secretary, according to dkos diarist Shawn in Showme, this is a first:
If you look at the history of the Department of Energy, you'll find that there's never been a Secretary who actually was an expert on energy. The closest we've ever gotten was Charles Duncan who had a chemical engineering degree and had a cup of coffee out of school at Humble (later Exxon). For some reason it just never occurred to the President to install a person who was qualified for the position.

Instead we've been subjected to a long line of career politicians, military men and folks that were as far away from energy as you could get (Reagan's first Secretary of Energy was an oral surgeon) . Is it any wonder that our energy policy is set by industry since the person who is supposed to do that doesn't have a clue?

Not only does Chu have a clue, he's a Nobel-prize winning scientist and is already working under the auspices of the Department of Energy at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab.
Why is having a scientist so important? Well for starters, as Chris Bowers points out, they'll be less likely to listen to all of the bullshit that will be thrown their way:
Placing a scientist at the head of the Department of Energy is very exciting to me, because we will be dealing with a true expert on the subject matter. Further, it is not just any scientist, but the scientist at the center of solar and biofuel research, meaning that industry lobbyists won't stand a chance when talking to him. Yet further, it means that his closest colleagues will also be alternative energy scientists, thus resulting in some excellent deputies and assistants. Even yet further, having a physicist like this in the cabinet means there will be a true science and technology expert within the cabinet, which could bleed over into decisions in other areas.
An appointment like this is the physical representation of the change that mandated on November 4th. Out with people who were bought by the energy companies, and in with someone who truly understands the impact of our energy policy on the world.

To be perfectly honest, I don't know that much about the rest of the team, or about this field for that matter, but this seems very good from what I can tell. There are several readers who follow this field very closely (or are scientists themselves) and I'd be curious to know their take.


  1. Actually putting a scientist in charge of something political? How elitist...

    What a revolutionary idea!

  2. Yeah! I was so pumped about this, I almost wrote it up myself. Chu looks totally awesome, and leave it to Obama to give a complex job to someone who is trained to think about complex situations.

    I particularly enjoyed this youtube video, which includes the fantastic line "And then what happened, miraculously, is that the manufactuerers had to assign the job the engineers instead of the lobbyists, and this [halving of cost while quadrupling of efficiency] is what you get."

    Pretty much sums up why he should get the job.