Token Scientist or the Real Deal?

by Bill Chameides | December 16th, 2008
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

Permalink | Comments Off on Token Scientist or the Real Deal?

Steven Chu, Obama’s choice for energy secretary, is a Nobel physicist. He is also an outspoken advocate for scientific solutions to global warming and the need for renewable energy solutions. (Photo from 1997: Linda A. Cicero/ Stanford News Service)

It’s official — Steven Chu is Barack Obama’s nominee for Secretary of Energy. Chu is a scientist extraordinaire: Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley; experience in academia, the private sector, and government; and winner of the 1997 Nobel Prize in Physics (for developing “methods to cool and trap atoms with laser light”). Sounds like he might actually be qualified for the post. How did that happen?

Way back in 2007 (remember then?), as the country began bracing for the presidential campaign, ScienceDebate 2008 was launched. Its purpose: to inject science back into political discourse by getting the candidates to have a televised debate on scientific issues alone. A rather radical proposal, the debate never happened. But ScienceDebate 2008 did get both presidential candidates to answer 14 questions on key scientific issues, including the role that science would play in their administrations.

Both candidates promised a break with the current administration by giving science its appropriate place informing public policy without first imposing a political lens.

Obama’s Choice for Energy Secretary Is an Expert on Alternative Energy

That was September. Now we have a winner. As President-elect Obama’s administration rapidly takes shape, at least one appointee appears to be the real deal — a bona fide, top notch scientist with lots of on-the-ground administrative experience and knowledge of the technologies needed to address our nation’s energy needs.

The energy department is going to be a key agency in our efforts to enhance energy security and curb global warming, as well as directing the stimulus package funds that will likely be identified for the energy sector. Chu, who has led the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory since 2004, will be able to hit the ground running. A world renowned scientist and an effective administrator, he has lots of relevant experience working on alternate energy technologies. He is also fully conversant when it comes to our nation’s energy challenges. Given the complexities of the problems and the state of scientific input, he arrives not a moment too soon. (The New York Times ran a story just yesterday about how officials from the interior department toyed with science to alleviate protections for endangered wildlife.)

Move Over, Lawyers – a Ph.D. Scientist Is Poised to Energize Obama’s Cabinet

If nominated, Chu will be the twelfth energy secretary. The first, appointed by Jimmy Carter, took office in 1977. Five of the 11 secretaries before Obama’s pick have been lawyers. Only three had any background in science — all as engineers. Only one of these — Sam Bodman (the current secretary) — has earned a doctor of science degree (Sc.D.).

So Chu represents a significant break with tradition and an encouraging sign that science will in fact have its appropriate input in the Obama administration. I can tell you that just about every “card-carrying” scientist that I have spoken to is very excited about this appointment. But is it enough?

In another break with “tradition,” Obama’s nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency, Lisa Jackson, is not a lawyer but a chemical engineer with a master’s degree. (Six of the 9 former EPA administrators have been lawyers. Jackson will also be the first African-American to head EPA.) Of course, Nancy Sutley, appointed to head the White House Council on Environmental Quality, is a politician, and Carol Browner, appointed to be the assistant to the president on energy and climate change, is a lawyer. I guess you can’t have everything.

Learn more about Dr. Chu through his speeches and op-eds.

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