Chuse Science

Chuse Science
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Late yesterday, reports started zinging around suggesting that the Obama transition team was ready to announce its energy and environment leaders.

By now it’s clear they are the following: former New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection commissioner Lisa Jackson will head up the Environmental Protection Agency; current Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory director Steven Chu will become Secretary of Energy; and Clinton administration EPA head Carol Browner will fill a newly created post, that of White House “climate czar.” In addition, Nancy Sutley, the current City of Los Angeles “deputy mayor” for Energy and Environment (and, of these four, the person with the thinnest Wikipedia profile), will come in as chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

Some of this is fairly predictable, and some of it isn’t. So I want to devote this post to hailing the simply extraordinary. The naming of Steve Chu, a Nobel laureate physicist, to the energy post signals a vastly different approach to science, and especially climate science, in the Obama administration.

President Obama hasn’t even named his presidential science adviser, yet here we have a cabinet pick that understands the research community, the importance of funding science in key areas (including, but not limited to, energy), the United States’ competitiveness concerns in relation to other nations, and much else. Chu even heartily endorsed the ScienceDebate2008 initiative which sought to get the candidates to discuss science policy on the campaign trail.

Energy research, meanwhile, is Chu’s specialty–making him a perfect pick for an administration that wants to remake the way the United States powers itself. At Berkeley, Chu has been central in the development of a $ 500 million partnership with oil company BP to fund research into new biologically based energy sources, chiefly to serve as fuels.

At the same time, he has pushed the lab to become a leader in solar energy research, and has himself transformed into a climate campaigner who put it like this in an interview with Science: “This is a problem we have to address, and we have a limited amount of time to do it. What we do in the first half of this century, we will see the consequences for the next 500 to 1000 years.”

A few weeks ago in Los Angeles, I saw Chu speak at a National Academy of Sciences event devoted to connecting science and the entertainment industry. Chu focused on global warming and compared our civilization to the Titanic, about to hit an iceberg unless we wake up and recognize the course we’re on. It was a brilliant message, although I can testify that while Chu may be an electrifying choice for Energy Secretary, he is not a very electrifying lecturer.

But far more important is that we actually have someone, at such a high post in government, who revels in the life of the mind. In Chu’s Nobel Laureate biography, he notes that in the eighth grade he “taught himself tennis by reading a book,” discusses how Richard Feynman’s lectures inspired him to keep going in physics, and describes at length the stimulating intellectual environment at Bell Labs, where he spent much of his career and had “no obligation to do anything except the research we loved best. The joy and excitement of doing science permeated the halls.”

I can’t think of any words that better demonstrate that a new day has finally arrived for America.

Above all, the choice of Chu reinforces the fact that the incoming administration will be very, very serious about stopping global warming and driving clean energy innovation. You don’t appoint such a prominent climate change campaigner to the energy post if you don’t want to be hounded constantly about the problem. You don’t give the top post, at an agency that specializes in energy research, to a solar, efficiency, and biofuels guy unless you want to see movement in these areas.

Next week, when Barack Obama formally announces these picks, we may also learn a more about his climate and energy plans. There is every reason to expect they will be very ambitious; and now we know he has the team to carry them out.

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