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

8/11/09Follow @xconomy

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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  • Aristides

    Chu’s mindless babbling illustrates just how clueless and out of touch with reality Chu and the regime he works for are. When Chu worked for Bell Labs, all telecommunications equipment was engineered and manufactured in the USA. Now virtually all of it is engineered and manufactured in China.

    While the Obama regime cuts funding for vital defense programs, such as F-22, so it can fund nonsense programs, such as “carbon capture and sequestration”, the Chinese are busy amassing a military-industrial complex second to none, fueled by thousands of coal fired plants and financed by greedy Amelican capitalists.

    As long as greedy Amelican capitalists continue to export, not just manufacturing jobs, but engineering and scientific jobs as well, no one in the USA is going to spend a fortune getting a higher education in either of those fields only to find out the only openings are for menial jobs in the service sector. Despite the lip service in favor of “Jobs at home instead of abroad” neither the Obama regime or the Democrat controlled Congress is going to do anything to halt the exodus, because they are beholden for their campaign funding to the very greedy capitalists who are exporting the USA.

    Never has a country been so driven to commit stugreedicide as the USA. Stupid Amelicans, your pathetic nation is now little more than a Chinese colony. You need to learn Chinese so you can say “Yes massa!” correctly, when your Chinese overlords bark their orders at you.

  • Seriously?

    Seriously? This is Xconomy, not Wackoconspiracy.com. I don’t even know where to start. So let me go line by line:
    1) If all telecom equipment is made in China, surely we should look for a new industry, leading us to point 2.
    2) CCS is not “nonsense”. It and other cleantech technologies are the growth industries of the future. Your fear of China is a good one – they are surpassing the US in green energy installations and dominance in this industry will be key for the next 50 years. Read “Hot Flat and Crowded”. It’s explained much better there than I could.
    3) The remaining two paragraphs, with reference to “Amelicans”, the fact that *no-one* is going to spend a fortune getting a higher education, greedy capitalists (being huge DEMOCRAT supporters?!), and such are just babble.

    The one saving grace I have is your reference to “your pathetic nation” – if you aren’t even an American, what’s with the uninformed, hateful dribble?