Energy Secretary Steven Chu: Hire Brash Young Turks to Create the New Bell Labs

Steven Chu was once a young turk scientist in the late 1970s at Bell Labs, the hothouse that gave the world the transistor, satellites, and all sorts of other high tech inventions. Now that he’s the U.S. Secretary of Energy, overseeing 30,000 government scientists and engineers around the country, Chu is drawing on his own formative experience to wrestle with an enormous problem he simply calls “the Energy Challenge.”

I traveled from Seattle across the Cascades yesterday to Richland, WA to hear Chu, the Nobel Laureate tapped earlier this year by President Obama to help craft a new U.S. energy policy. This was his first visit to the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, one of the nation’s 21 national labs and technology centers overseen by the U.S. Department of Energy. He spoke at an auditorium with 300 scientists and engineers before taking a tour of projects at the lab. He didn’t take any questions from the media.

Chu’s 50-minute talk (see the video here) was part-narrative on the history of global climate change, part-political manifesto, part-physics lecture, and part-pep rally. The energy problems he’s facing are familiar to anyone who watches the TV news. The way he frames it, the U.S. depends on oil for too much of its energy supply. It’s a situation that’s giving rise to geopolitical conflicts and is making the world warmer, leading to flooding and droughts that are threatening to destabilize many countries, and will likely make them “spawning grounds” for terrorists.

One way the nation can get out of this predicament is through science, but not just traditional university science, Chu told the crowd. The national laboratories have an opportunity to make groundbreaking fundamental discoveries, even while being mission-driven for things like national security, or toxic cleanup, just as Bell Labs made fundamental discoveries while delivering products to AT&T, its parent company, Chu told the crowd. The national labs can collaborate across disciplines, which Chu says is something that seldom happens in universities because they corral researchers within departments, which he calls “stovepipes.”

“What can be the new Bell Labs, the new Lincoln Labs?” Chu asked. “The national labs have an opportunity to step up to the plate. It’s a great national facility. Think hard about using it.”

He reminisced a little bit about his experience at the famed Bell Labs in the late 1970s. He showed a slide of some of his colleagues, who were all just hungry young researchers like him, who hadn’t yet padded their resumes with much to brag about. “Two-thirds of us ended up in the National Academy of Sciences, and five of us won Nobels. We were hired young and we grew up together. It was a special place.”

The Richland lab, which has an $881 million annual operating budget and 4,300 scientists, engineers and staff, certainly worked hard to roll out the red carpet for Chu. Scientists at the lab showed off … Next Page »

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