It's not surprising that scientists would applaud the nomination of a Nobel Prize-winning physicist to be U.S. Secretary of Energy, but the promise of Steven Chu's nomination goes far beyond clan identity. What's especially exciting is the prospect of having someone who understands, and believes in, complex scientific inquiry in charge of the complex science inherent in the major energy issues facing America.
Too often, energy policy is reduced to the "Drill, Baby, Drill" refrain made famous in the recent presidential campaign. But the future of U.S. energy is not simple. It's not just a question of drilling in Alaska or offshore or in other environmentally sensitive areas. It's a matter of building a multifaceted strategy, composed of a variety of approaches, many of which involve highly complex scientific challenges.
And that's where Steven Chu's background, approach, and potential are so intriguing. He understands that energy policy is not just about oil, and he has a distinguished history of involvement in the kinds of transformational science that could radically alter U.S. dependence on foreign oil.
Dr. Chu is co-winner of the 1997 Nobel Prize in Physics for the "development of methods to cool and trap atoms with laser light." At the time, he was a professor of Physics at Stanford University and later Chair of the Department of Physics, where he was instrumental in bringing scientists with physics, chemistry, biology, and engineering backgrounds into one building, in order to facilitate collaboration. He has been director of the prestigious Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory since 2004, where he has become a major national advocate for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and for collaboration between business and science to address climate change.
In 2007, he made a bold move when he agreed to allow the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to become a partner in the Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI), a half-billion-dollar partnership with British Petroleum and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne to conduct research needed to produce biofuels from plant material. While some environmentalists have characterized this arrangement as a dance with the devil (BP), cross-discipline collaborations are precisely what are needed to solve big complex questions of critical global importance.
Dr. Chu's explanation of his decision at the time underscores his approach: "We believe EBI will create a culture where vibrant interpersonal interactions will generate extraordinarily innovative research. The 'team science' approach introduced by E.O. Lawrence [builder of the first large cyclotron for subatomic research] 75 years ago and the invention of the transistor at Bell Labs are striking examples of how large-scale multidisciplinary problems were solved by establishing the proper scientific culture where the most brilliant minds can work together."
This commitment to multidisciplinary initiatives in pursuit of transformational ideas is important across a wide range of energy issues confronting America. In solar energy, for instance, another area of great interest to Dr. Chu, there are major questions that must be answered about collecting energy on a large-enough scale, storing it appropriately, and distributing it widely. Not only will a range of sciences, as well as engineering, need to be involved, but the participation of industry will also be required, because the only model that can reach sufficient scale is one that embraces the private sector. With its involvement, as well as government's, the United States could, through solar power, address our national energy needs, rebuild our economy along the way, and become a major exporter of solar energy technology in the process. By doing so, we could improve the global environment on a major scale.
The U.S. Department of Energy is one of the top four federal funders of research, according to ScienceDebate2008.com, and it's the No. 1 funder of physics research. By nominating Dr. Chu, President-elect Obama has ensured that the United States will have an energy leader who understands the opportunities that America has before it and who will use his position to inspire - and to fund - the multidisciplinary transformational science that can truly change the world.
The author is President of Research Corporation for Science Advancement, a foundation dedicated to science since 1912.