FRIED LIGHT: Looking at Chu

-A A +A
By Roger Snodgrass

He stood out even as a long shot for Secretary of Energy, but now the choice is obvious.

Steven Chu, director of the University of California’s Berkeley laboratory since 2004, and President-elect Obama’s pick for a key cabinet post might well be the shot in the arm the crippled Department of Energy needs, or as an influential scientific columnist put it, “the perfect call.”

He’s not just a scientist and not just a Nobel laureate, he’s a leader and a visionary. To risk overstatement, Chu is the embodiment of leadership on science, energy and the crisis of climate change, which is not a bad thing to be right now.

In April 2005, he made headlines with the radical idea that climate change might just be more serious than anybody thought and that the quest for alternatives for fossil fuels was the country’s most important scientific endeavor.

One of his most dramatic and memorable inspirations was about termite guts. The transforming potential of microorganisms in the bellies of devouring insects, he suggested, might be enlisted to process not just a few drops of oil from corn or sugar, but rather the entire biomass of a crop, the very fiber that makes up most of the mass of organic matter on the planet.

He’s raised hundred of millions of dollars to complement Berkeley’s budget for research in biofuels and solar energy. He’s a leading advocate of increased government investment in advanced energy research and sustainable energy.

He is a persuader and teacher. He has recruited younger scientists to his banner and has seemingly left positive impressions on all sides.

He doesn’t just talk about it or poke at it with a stick.

What’s right with Chu, unfortunately is a reminder of what’s woefully wrong with the Energy Department, a bureaucracy that desperately needs a renaissance.

Weakened by eight years of neglect and having expended much of its credibility by trying to make the best of a series of wrong causes, the Department of Energy is on the verge of irrelevance.

The deregulation and inattention that has brought the nation to its knees financially was also gnawing away, and not just at food, toys, and environmental health. The safety and security of the nuclear enterprise has also been compromised by irresponsible budgeting staffing and policy decisions, that will have to be reviewed and refashioned from top to bottom.

Building upon the current hollowed-out foundation, would be risky and foolish. The country has very little margin for continued blundering and failure.

A revitalized government with an Energy Department that energizes rather than enervates and that solves problems rather than repressing them would be a wonder to behold.