Monday, March 23, 2009

Energy Secretary Serves Under a Microscope

Energy Secretary Steven Chu won a Nobel in physics in 1997.

Dan Leistikow, the Energy Department’s director of public affairs, said that Dr. Chu was a scientist, not a politician, and should be given a little time to adjust.

Indeed he should. What a glorious event it was to see a scientist become head of the Department.

“A Nobel scientist is more likely to figure out Washington than a career politician is to figure out how to deal with carbon sequestration,” Mr. Leistikow said.


As a physicist, Steven Chu has seen atoms suspended in a powerful laser beam and DNA stretched out in a vacuum chamber.

But in his new job as energy secretary, Dr. Chu is observing phenomena he never saw in the science laboratory.

At a recent Senate hearing, for example, he witnessed a junior cabinet member (himself) being systematically dissected by a senior senator (John McCain).

Mr. McCain, Republican of Arizona, was unhappy when Dr. Chu affirmed the Obama administration’s intention to suspend work at a planned nuclear waste site in Nevada. “What’s wrong with Yucca Mountain, Dr. Chu?” he demanded repeatedly as Dr. Chu tried to explain.

“I think we can do a better job,” Dr. Chu finally replied.

For a slight, soft-spoken Nobel laureate, Washington has been an initiation that he has likened to being “dumped in the deep end of the pool.” Dr. Chu, 61, was chairman of Stanford’s physics department and ran a national research laboratory. But in addition to being verbally slapped around by Mr. McCain, he has been forced to backtrack on some ill-informed comments about OPEC and ordered to spend quickly tens of billions of dollars in stimulus money with virtually no top-level help.

Dr. Chu is still mastering skills like ducking a tough question from a reporter and delivering the all-purpose “I’ll get back to you on that.”

He has admitted his naïveté on certain policy questions, like OPEC production quotas, and is still getting used to the scrutiny that comes with a cabinet job.

Energy Secretary Steven Chu toured a home in Milwaukee that was getting new appliances to help cut down on its electric bills.

Yet as he takes on one of the toughest policy and management challenges in government, Dr. Chu brings certain assets that none of his peers or predecessors have had: a Nobel Prize, a YouTube following (for his lectures on climate change) and an unofficial theme song (“Dr. Wu” by Steely Dan). He is a major celebrity in Taiwan, where scientific achievement is rewarded with rock star status. He is a member of Academica Sinica, Taiwan’s most distinguished scholarly society, as was his father.

Quite something, father and son both members of the Academy. O, to live in a society in which scientists are held in such high regard.

He comes from a family of academic overachievers. His father emigrated from China to study chemical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and retired as a professor at the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn. His mother studied economics in China and at M.I.T. One brother, Gilbert, is a professor of medicine and biochemistry at Stanford; the other, Morgan, is a highly regarded intellectual property lawyer in Los Angeles. Dr. Chu once described himself as the academic black sheep of the family.

Wow; impressive.

Morgan Chu said of his brother, “He’s acclimating very well, all things considered.” He added, “He has a wonderful set of skills for the job — an unbending respect for discovering the unvarnished truth and a willingness to challenge established dogma.”

Matt Rogers, an energy expert with McKinsey & Company whom Dr. Chu brought in last month to help speed the pace of Energy Department spending, said it would be a mistake to dismiss Dr. Chu as just a science geek. “He is a kind man; he is a nice man,” Mr. Rogers said. “But he is not a patient man. People are going to have to take a deep breath and realize they’re going to be moving at a much quicker pace than they were used to.”

Good to hear that.

Borrowing an analogy from the world of physics, he said that in Washington, Newton’s first law — a body in motion tends to stay in motion — does not apply. “In a bureaucracy, if you start something in motion, it either stops or gets derailed,” he said. “You have to keep applying force.”

He intends to keep applying that force, he said, because it could help solve the world’s energy and climate change problems.

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