President-elect Obama has allegedly asked the physics Nobel Laureate Steven Chu to head up the Department of Energy. A lot of scientists I know are praising this decision. I am tentatively supportive of this decision.
While Chu’s understanding of science is of course rock solid, being the Secretary of a government Department is a political job. Now, Chu does have political experience. In 2004 he was appointed to be the Director of the Lawrence Berkeley Lab in California, was chair of the Stanford physics department before that, and is also involved with some international projects that do involve considerable political savvy.
Chu doesn’t seem to have experience in the American government’s political system, and I’m weighing in my head how much of a concern that is. The current Energy Secretary, Samuel W. Bodman, had quite a bit of experience before taking on the role, and the Secretary before him was a State Senator. I disagree pretty strongly with the political stances of both of those men, but they did have political careers before they became Secretary. Looking at other Departments, their heads have a various amount of political expertise, some with very little indeed, and that has led to some disastrous situations in this country. On the balance, I think Chu has more political experience than many of these people, so that’s good.
This choice does make me happy of a lot of reasons: he’s a scientist, for cripes sake! He is an activist when it comes to global warming. He has worked very hard on creating collaborations between disparate groups of people. He has no experience with Arabian horses that I can find, so that makes him way ahead of the typical hack Bush appointee.
On the whole, I think this is a good choice from Obama, but I’d like to see more information. If he does get chosen, the vetting process should reveal more of his history and his ability to take on this role.
But again: the very fact that he is a scientist indicates a whole new ball game politically here in the United States of America. January 20, 2009 cannot come quickly enough.