Commentary: Obama is making the right choices for science

GIVEN the importance of energy policy in President-Elect Obama's plans to revitalise the US economy, some pundits are worried that his choice for energy secretary, Nobel laureate physicist Steve Chu, lacks direct political experience. They shouldn't.

As director of one of the major US national laboratories, Chu has ample experience navigating the political waters in Washington. More importantly, decisions on US energy policy over the next decade should follow on from scientific and technological considerations, not the other way around.

Energy policy will involve a complex interplay between two pressing needs: to stimulate the economy and to build an infrastructure that can promote energy independence and sustainability while moderating greenhouse gas emissions and helping us break our dependence on hydrocarbon fuels.

Obama has proposed spending $150 billion over 10 years on developing clean energy sources, and perhaps 10 times as much on improving national infrastructure through the creation of high-tech green jobs. Spending money on these areas is crucial, but throwing money indiscriminately at them would be tragic. It is vital at this time to have someone at the helm of the Department of Energy who is prepared to make tough decisions about which technologies the government should invest in and how best to partner with private enterprise.

Chu is eminently qualified in these areas. As director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL), he helped to transform it into one of the main US research facilities for renewable energy technologies. He is also one of the leaders of a pioneering public-private partnership between LBNL, the University of California, the University of Illinois and BP that will focus over $400 million on energy-related biosciences research. This is just the kind of entrepreneurial model the US needs as it attempts to exploit one of its greatest natural resources, its scientific talent, to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

As energy secretary, Chu's greatest challenge will be to help Congress to act in the face of pressures from energy lobbyists of all persuasions. Here, too, he is eminently qualified. I can say from personal experience that he is not only a brilliant physicist but a dynamic communicator. One of the big challenges in his interactions with Congress and within the administration will be to educate people sufficiently to make informed decisions on these complex issues.

Having known Chu for almost 20 years, I can attest that few physicists combine this expertise in their field with such savvy understanding of how to run an institution. Moreover, once Chu moved to LBNL, he threw his intellect into the task of developing new technologies to deal with our increasing energy needs and looming climate change. Within a year his lectures on these subjects reflected mastery not only of the science, but of the economic and political challenges involved too.

The choice of energy secretary may not be Obama's most visible appointment, but it may yet be one of his most important. By moving outside the political arena to select one of the most capable scientists in the country to help guide US energy strategy, Obama has reinforced a principle that was too often missing during the election campaign: to solve the challenges we face, sound public policy must be based on sound science.

Chu will be aided by a science "dream team", including John Holdren as science adviser and Harold Varmus and Eric Lander as co-chairs of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (see page 10). It is hard to imagine a more experienced and capable group of science leaders. It is time to leave behind a decade in which politics has largely trumped science. Obama's appointments bode well for the future of this administration, and for our future too.

  • From issue 2690 of New Scientist magazine, page 46.  

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