Obama asks a scientist to run Energy Department?

By Phil Plait | December 11, 2008 9:30 am

Steven Chu, Obama’s possible pick to be head of the Dept. of EnergyPresident-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.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Piece of mind, Politics, Science

Comments (59)

  1. Mike

    I was hoping he would ask Shirley Ann Jackson. She was the director of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission under Clinton and has been president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (my alma matre) since 1999. She has both the academic/scientific and political background for the job.

    She would also be very good in the Dept of Education, as she was president of the AAAS a few years ago and does a lot of work promoting scientific education.

  2. Bobcloclimar

    Dr. Chu was also involved with missile-defense related panel several (many?) years back, during which he championed cessation of those activities – so he does have some direct exposure to the political climate in the capitol.

  3. WCG

    Off-topic a bit, but what’s all this about NASA administrator Mike Griffin not cooperating with Barack Obama’s transition team, telling Lori Garver that she’s “not qualified” to judge the program?


    I figured Phil would be posting about this. Any more info about it?

  4. Gary Ansorge

    He was chosen as much because he’s of Asian ancestry as for his expertise as a scientist. Obama owes the Asian community for its political support. I note that the Obama team is more multi-ethnic than virtually any previous administration and that is very good.
    What is really significant is his position as a Nobel Prize winner. For the first time(in I don’t really know how long) we have a president(to be) that appreciates having knowledgeable people to advise him and operate the government. What a refreshing change.

    I am not that great a fan of “political expertise”. As Tom Jefferson noted, “,,,professional politicians will be the death of the Republic,,,”. I expect, from the example of the last eight years, he was right on in that sentiment.

    GAry 7

  5. jasonB

    Oooh an activist for global warming, or is it climate change now? Will his advice be for a split from Middle East Oil that includes nuclear, or will it just be to tell me what I can or can not drive and do? Will it involve some Sylvia Browne cap and trade scheme?

    Hope you folks in Texas are enjoying the snow.

  6. John Powell

    Can’t be making the “clean coal” crowd happy.

  7. Todd W.

    Wow, only 4 posts and already someone critical of global warming/climate change. That was quick.

  8. TexasScienceTeacher


    Actually, yes. I am enjoying the snow. It started coming down at about 3:00 yesterday afternoon here in Houston. I took my fourth graders outside for about 10 minutes. For many of them it was the first time they had ever seen the stuff.

    The east side of Houston actually had 3 to 4 inches on the groud this morning. Weather people said the last time we have had this much snow, this early in the year was in the 1940’s.

    I can’t tell you how some people freak out because of a little water and ice on the road. There have been 500 (yes, I said five-hundred) accidents on the roads in Harris County in the last 24 hours.

  9. T.E.L.

    Hey jasonB,

    When the energy-cost of mining oil exceeds the energy which can be extracted from it, you won’t have to worry about anyone telling you what you can drive.

  10. Mus


    Personally I’m very happy with this. I’m sure there could have been better picks (as always), but what this says about Obama and how he will govern is extremely encouraging.

    Just imagine! someone chosen for a position about which they actually know something about!

  11. Gary, do you have any evidence that he was picked because he’s Asian?

    jasonB, nice try, but your ignorance of what global warming really is is showing. It means weather pattern changes as well, so some places will locally get colder. You might want to get some facts before saying things that silly.

    WCG: patience. That post is next. :)

  12. T.E.L.

    Evidence? Well- he was picked, and he’s Asian. What else is there? :)

  13. Poul-Henning Kamp

    But don’t miss the point that 3/4 of DoE’s work is nuclear weapons.

    All the renewable energy is more or less accidental on the major labs being located in hot sun in the middle of nowhere…


  14. Charles Boyer

    @WCG – posted the same link in the Mars post. Griffin’s arrogance is simply astounding. Any chance he may have had of staying in his job is surely gone now. I too wonder what Phil thinks of it all. Being an ex-NASA man, he surely has some insight.

    On-topic, I am pleased with the appointment of Doctor Chu, because he is a man who will not be fooled by pseudo-science. As for him not being a master politician, that’s change I can really believe in.

  15. SLC

    This seems like an excellent choice. A real scientist to head up the Energy Department! Now, if President Elect Obama will appoint somebody of equal prestige as his science adviser (Dr. Harold Varmus anyone), we will see a president who goes after the best and the brightest. No graduates of 4th rate law schools like Regent and Liberty need apply.

    Re WCG

    Boy, if President Elect Obama selected Steven Weinberg or Bob Park as the head of NASA, that would really set off a rant from Dr. Plait!

  16. Why the question mark in the title and the “allegedly” in the opening sentence? This seems to be the same kind of controlled leak as as preceded all the formal cabinet announcements.

  17. T.E.L.

    Heh: Weinberg is too classy to take a job running NASA.

  18. Dave Svoboda

    T.E.L., correlation does not imply causality.

  19. Mus

    Dave, Correlation does not NECESSARILY imply causality.

    (I’m not taking a side on the asian issue)

  20. Brian

    “January 20, 2009 cannot come quickly enough.” That’s been the motto of America for some time now. I’m surprised it’s not on one of the quarters.

  21. T.E.L.


    Relax. It was a joke.

  22. Todd W.


    “January 20, 2009 cannot come quickly enough.” That’s been the motto of America for some time now. I’m surprised it’s not on one of the quarters.

    It’s not a statement of Christian faith, therefore no law will be passed to put it on the currency.

  23. Gary Ansorge

    Phil: Evidence for my aforementioned statement is inferred, rather than documented. From press coverage about including prominent Latinos in his cabinet, to similar statements about the support of the Asian community for Obama, everyone in our multi-ethnic nation seems to be hoping Obama will distribute political connection in accord with their particular group. I grant you this is not hard evidence for my statement but it is suggestive. I should probably have been more precise in that regard,,,
    (,,,as in,,,OOPS! You caught me,,,)

    I see nothing wrong with such inclusion, as long as the individuals tapped for these positions of influence are, as with Dr. Chu, super qualified. Wow! A Nobel Prize winner in a position of power. What next? A president with a brain,,,oh, wait, WE ALREADY HAVE THAT(well, in about another 40 days).( AH, Scarecrow, I’m glad you made it to Oz).

    As far as a Science Advisor goes, I would really like to see the futurist Dr. David Brin tapped for that position. Anyone familiar with his book Earth, The Transparent Society or A Vision of Future Space Transport might be inclined to agree.

    Gary 7

  24. Gene L

    My guess is that Dr. Chu will be asked to be more involved with charting actual energy policy. As far as the political maneuvering and dealing with Congress, that is probably a good part of the role that Carol Browner will have.

  25. David

    Oh…now I remember why I cancelled my subscription to Discover Magazine. Global Warming!? Biggest scam since…since…oh yeah, Global COOLING.

    Man, we sure need the constitution to protect the rest of us from you “climate change” whackos.

    God help us all!

  26. Sili

    Even if he doesn’t have the political savvy, isn’t that what the civil service is for?

    I mean – sayng that Chu doesn’t have Washington experience isn’t that far removed from the (pointless) critique that Obama didn’t have executive experience.

  27. RL

    Isn’t the current Energy Secretary a former professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT? (With a background in business finance and executive management).

    Being a scientist is nice, but has he run anything big before?

  28. T.E.L.

    David Said:

    “Global Warming!? Biggest scam since…since…oh yeah, Global COOLING.”

    You may disagree with it, but there’s a big difference between being in error and being a scam.

    “Man, we sure need the constitution to protect the rest of us from you “climate change” whackos.”

    Thankfully, that’s not what the Constitution does at all. Its job is not to insulate you from unpleasantness. Its job is to give you a fair chance in this life of yours.

  29. Robbie

    The fact that guy is a brilliant physicist doesn’t say anything about how well he can shape and better energy policy in the country. Any more than the fact that anyone is an expert in one subject implies that he will be an expert in any other.

    That is a fallacy often committed and especially toward Barack Obama. History has not shown brightly on putting power in the hands of people just because they have high IQs.

    On the other hand, lacking political experience is a plus in many ways to me and rings truer with Obama’s message from his campaign. Not that very many of his other appointments have followed that message.

  30. Bobcloclimar

    RL Says:
    December 11th, 2008 at 12:18 pm
    “Being a scientist is nice, but has he run anything big before?”

    Managing one of the premier research labs in the country doesn’t count for anything?

  31. Todd W.


    History has not shown brightly on putting power in the hands of people just because they have high IQs.

    I know. Just look at what happened to Springfield on The Simpsons! :)

  32. Whether he is a good choice or not, I really don’t have an opinion: I don’t know anything about him or his background.

    Where I take issue is the perception Phil (and MANY others have these days) that you have to have political “experience” to play at that level of government. If that is that is the case, then we are doing it WRONG!

    Our founding fathers never envisioned a beast so complex that an intelligent person couldn’t figure it out, let alone a Nobel Laureate PhD…

    By creating and then promoting this illusion that we have to have a professional class of people to lead us and run our government is precisely the type of caste system we tossed off when we started dumping tea in Boston harbour.

  33. Dan Veteran

    The only thing I have to say about him not being a politician is, What is easier? Teaching a scientist to be a politician or a politician to be a scientist. I think the latter. A good choice.

  34. T.E.L.

    RapidEye, you are so right. The founding ideal was along the lines of elected individuals taking sabbaticals from their primary occupations to serve a term in public office, then returning to private life and allow the next generation to govern. What we have today is industrial-scale politics. It’s shameful.

  35. jasonB

    Phil, 650 scientists now say that no, the science is not settled.

    The Guru Hanson has been shown to twice be manipulating/fudging/screwing up the numbers. The numbers that a lot of this “science” is based on.

    He then testifies in a trial in the UK to help exonerate some folks who destroyed private property in the name of saving the earth from Global Warming.

    Would you give Bush and Co. a pass if they showed this level of incompetence/politicization of an issue? Truthfully.

  36. Stark

    jasonB – how many of those 650 have expertise in climate science? Being a scientists does not make you an expert in all disciplines of science (in fact it usually makes you an expert in exactly one discipline). The opinion of 650 biologists versus several thousand climate scientists does not hold much water.

  37. RL


    It might, I don’t know enough about the lab and what it takes to run it. Somewhere on the web, it says that his lab has about 5000 staff. I believe that the Energy department is much larger than that. Hopefully he has the experience to run a larger organization.

  38. God, competent people in positions of power. It’s all uphill from here.

  39. darth_borehd

    Arabian horses???

  40. Mark Schaffer

    Dr. James Hansen was not shown in any way to have been manipulating data. This is quite simply a lie on the part of jasonB and in a just society he would be held accountable for such slander. As far as the supposed 650 ‘scientists’ see the link for a complete debunking of this nonsense:

  41. KC

    David Brin? I like his books, but I don’t think he’d make a good science adviser.

  42. SLC

    Re JasonB

    There is a list of some 700 so-called scientists published by the Discovery Institute which dissents from the neo-Darwinian theory of evolution. There is a list of some 135 so-called scientists who dissent from the bang theory of cosmology. In fact, many of the dissenters on both lists are young earth creationists. In other words, I am totally unimpressed with the fact that some clown was able to get 650 so-called scientists to lend their names to such a list. One of the signers is Prof. Fred Singer of the Un. of Virginia, Charlottesville who is a world class denier having also denied the relationship between smoking and lung cancer and the relationship between CFCs and ozone depletion.

    The bottom line is that the overwhelming opinion of the scientific community is that anthropogenic global warming is a reality and Senator Imhoffs’ list of 650 is utter rubbish.

  43. jasonB

    Yea Mark, they’re just a myth.

    I also gave the possibility that he screwed up. Siberian data held over for a month? That’s slander? Wow I can’t wait for your just society.

  44. SLC

    Re jasonB

    Mr. jasonB makes reference to a minority report from Senate Rethuglicans on the issue of global warming, spearheaded by whackjob James Imhoff, a totally owned tool of the oil companies. This report has no credibility whatever and has been totallly discredited by the climatology community. Mr. jasonB will have to do better then then that.

  45. Gary Ansorge


    I only really know David is an extremely insightful person with a PhD in astrophysics and a 50% batting average for his predictions on the Prediction Registry.

    His breadth of knowledge is quite impressive(hey, he may actually know more about more things than I do) and since he’s a futurist he brings intellectual flexibility to the mix.

    I have no idea how politicallly inclined he may be and I don’t care. Politics, though it is seemingly a necessity in human endevors, nevertheless,,,is a black hole and you know what THEY do,,,

    GAry 7

  46. Jeffersonian

    “History has not shown brightly on putting power in the hands of people just because they have high IQs.”
    If that’s an argument that Energy decisions should be in the hands of those with low IQs, you lost me. (I’m not saying this describes you or how you intended your comment to be read, but) I’m baffled by those who insist that intelligence should not be respected when it comes to holding decision-making positions that affect the world.

    I say political requirement, bah. Chu’s a good pick. It’s a managerial position and can be approached from that angle. Nice Arabian horse reference, too, Phil; sums up the last 8 years.

    So, you’re saying uncommon weather in Texas has nothing in common with theories of disrupted weather patterns? There’s a reason we say “globally” and use terms like “average worldwide temperatures”. Snow in Texas means somewhere in the world just got unusually hot. Holding your hand out the window and checking isn’t much of a climate study, or perhaps a day of snow in Texas is an indicator that glaciers worldwide grew back today as well? It’s just as easy to offer 650 “scientists” that think the holocaust never happened. What’s your suggestion, continue pumping carbon into the atmosphere forever and continue to base all economies on oil because neither will have ill effects on life? Unless you’re connected to the fossil-fuel industry or politics, then you might have a psychological reason for your contrarian approach to reality. Perhaps? What’s the base of your fear that causes you to search and cling to fringe extremism and then dig up the oddball supporters and their claims that contrast the body of knowledge? We already know why certain politicians and certain industries purport the nothing-can-ever-change viewpoint. In fact we’re already several decades into the debate. Like “whacko” Dana Rohrabacher, you’ve caught up to about 1998. You’re next step is “ok, it is happening; but it’s not anthropogenic and it’s not a bad thing”.

    I don’t recall a worldwide consensus following peer-reviewed study that overwhelmingly pointed to global cooling. Maybe you can show us? (obscure articles from column-hungry pop magazines not withstanding – real studies don’t need to sell ads)

  47. Tim G

    Slightly off topic, but I think everyone will appreciate this:

    The true value of science advisers

  48. fos

    It snowed in Houston and New Orleans. The Messiah has already solved global warming!

  49. Robbie

    My point is that just because someone has a high IQ or is an expert in something doesn’t mean that person will make good decisions or be an expert in some other field they aren’t experienced in. And that giving someone power just because of their IQ isn’t wise. I was simply trying to counter the notion that because the guy is a physicist and a genius doesn’t mean he knows how to set energy policy. He may well do a good job, however.

  50. Gary Ansorge

    What part of chaos theory don’t you understand? So? It snowed in Houston? We used to get freezing rain there in the ’60s and early ’70s so what’s your point?(that’s when I lived there).

    When you add energy to a system, it has to redistribute it some way, eventually finding a new equilibrium point. By putting the lid on the simmering pot(which is essentially what we’re doing by adding CO2 to the atmospheric mix) we increase the intensity of the boil, causing more random motion of the water, which is essentially what we’re seeing now. Some areas of Earth get hotter, some get colder but the AVERAGE temp goes up.
    Eventually, we reach a point where the excess energy in the system is high enough to allow radiation thru the lid(CO2) and a new equilibrium temp is reached, which will be higher than the previous equilibrium temp.

    See how easy that was?

    GAry 7

  51. These friendly debates are lots of fun.

    here’s a weblog by Dr. Joanne Simpson. I don’t really know much about her, she’s probably just a hack.

  52. David D

    It’s interesting that when the temps are high in the summer, everyone screams about the GW catastrophe, but record setting cold, early snowfalls, etc.–well, that’s just weather.

  53. Gary Ansorge

    GW catastrophe? HArdly! A serious threat to millions of humans? Definitely!

    A three meter rise in sea level will imperil at least 100 million people who live on or very near the sea, which includes Hawaii,Indonesia, the Philippines and even Los Angeles(average height above sea level: 16 feet). Changes in rainfall patterns already imperil people who have limited access to fresh water. Since we cannot know, a priori, how climate will reorganize rainfall patterns around the globe or what tipping points may be crossed that could induce run away GW, we need to err on the side of caution. The point is, if we CAN influence GW by reducing our contribution to it, we should,,,

    Gary 7

  54. David D

    “The point is, if we CAN influence GW by reducing our contribution to it, we should,,,”

    I heartily agree. I don’t think the question anymore is whether or not GW is occurring–it is.
    The question now is how to go about addressing the issue, without destroying our economy (which is in perilous straits as it is). Climate science is far too inexact at this time to make policies that would bottle up Western economic growth while allowing other nations to continue to churn out greenhouse gases at unprecedented rates. If the crisis is real, then we ALL need to pull together as a planet, don’t you think?

    I’m not sure why your “threat” scenario doesn’t qualify as a catastrophe.

  55. Levi

    According to the Wikipedia article: “Chu is an early signatory to Project Steve, an educational campaign supporting the conventional scientific understanding of evolution.”


  56. stopgap

    When it comes to energy policy a background in economics is a must. Any wrong changes to the policy without proper consideration to the current economic situation would be damaging. After that a background in hard science would be a plus.

  57. T.E.L.

    How about just drinking a bottle of hard science? Mike’s-Brand Hard Science: delicious!


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