President Barack Obama's new Energy Secretary, Steven Chu, is an unprecedented choice. Previous energy secretaries have all been politicians, such as former Democratic Representative, and now Governor, Bill Richardson of New Mexico, or former Republican Senator Spencer Abraham of Michigan. Chu, in contrast, is an eminent scientist, winner of the 1997 Nobel Prize for breakthroughs in basic physics. He's widely considered to be the smartest person ever to head up the Energy Dept.
Chu wasn't giving interviews prior to his Senate confirmation, on Jan. 20. But his mission is already clear to people who are familiar with his work or know him personally. He has said that the U.S. needs to increase funding dramatically for basic research, especially in energy. That's the only way to feed the fires of innovation. Chu believes the amount of money allocated for research in the Energy Dept.'s $25 billion budget is "quite pathetic," says colleague Chris Somerville, director of the Energy Biosciences Institute at the Energy Dept.'s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, which Chu directed until tapped for Obama's Cabinet. Nevertheless, Chu is "quite an optimist," says Somerville. "He believes that if we could marshal the resources, there's untapped genius that could be brought to bear on problems."
Chu is equally passionate about the need to reduce emissions of the greenhouse gases that are altering the climate. In the service of that cause, he even put his own reputation on the line while running Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory. He altered the focus of the organization, starting a big initiative three years ago, dubbed Helios, in solar power. Then he took an even more brazen step that raised questions about the role of corporate funding in government laboratories: He did a deal with oil giant BP (BP), which is putting up $500 million to fund the Energy Biosciences Institute.
The Early Years
For much of his early life, Chu didn't consider himself to be controversial, or even all that clever compared with others in his family. His Chinese immigrant father was a professor of chemical engineering; his mother was an economist. "Virtually all of our aunts and uncles had PhDs in science or engineering, and it was taken for granted that the next generation of Chus were to follow the family tradition," he later wrote.
While growing up on New York's Long Island, Chu built homemade rockets, taught himself to pole vault, and discovered a passion for reading and proving theorems in math. But compared with his brothers and cousins, who went to Princeton and Harvard, "I was…the academic black sheep," he observed. With grades he described as "lackluster"—he had an A- average—he settled for the University of Rochester.
But his brilliance shone through. Or as Chu put it, he had some luck and seized on the opportunities. "Instead of working with a clear vision of the future, I followed my nose, head close to the ground where the scent is strongest," he wrote. He got his doctorate at the University of California at Berkeley, then landed at Bell Laboratories. At AT&T's (T) fabled research paradise, "we felt like the 'Chosen Ones,' with no obligation to do anything except the research we loved best," he later recalled.
Chu's years at Bell Labs (1978 to 1987) are crucial to understanding his view of the world—and what he might do as Energy Secretary. The sprawling research lab was a special place. Fueled by the revenue from AT&T's phone monopoly, it was filled with some of America's brightest scientists, who were also given the financial support to pursue almost anything they wanted. The collective ethos held that virtually no problem in science and technology was too tough to be solved by the sheer power of the human brain. Hence Chu's technology optimism.
There's also a darker lesson from Bell Labs, however. The economic conditions that allowed such great industrial labs to flourish are now history. Chu understands the implications very well. He played a big role in writing an influential report from the National Academy of Sciences, Rising Above the Gathering Storm. The dire prediction: Unless the federal government boosts funding for basic research and science education, filling huge gaps left by the demise of the powerhouse industrial labs, the pace of innovation in the U.S. will stall and the nation's competitiveness will take a nosedive.
One of the beneficiaries of Chu's focus on new biofuels is Jay Keasling (BusinessWeek, 1/15/09), a director of the Lawrence Berkeley Lab and chief executive of the Joint Bioenergy Institute. Keasling's research has led to start two companies, Amyris and LS9, which are engineering microbes to make a range of fuels, from bio-jet fuel to bio-diesel.
Hardly a Monopoly
Now Chu is bringing those passions to a wider stage. Can he succeed in the high-stakes world of Washington, where the best intentions can founder on the rocks of politics and reality? Keasling feels confident about Chu's prospects. "He's a strong personality," Keasling says. "He'll do whatever he can to make sure that important issues around renewable energy stay in the forefront."
One of the big challenges is that, despite its name, the Energy Dept. doesn't hold sway over much of the nation's energy policy. Much of its resources go to managing the nation's nuclear weapons arsenal. Oil and gas leasing is handled by the Minerals Management Service (for offshore resources) and the Bureau of Land Management (for issues on land). Both are part of the Interior Dept. If Washington does manage to put limits on carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, which could have a huge effect on energy choices by putting a price on those emissions, the rules would be administered by the Environmental Protection Agency. Tackling the fuel economy of automobiles is the jurisdiction of the National Traffic Highway Safety Administration, within the Transportation Dept. As head of the Energy Dept., Chu won't have direct responsibility for any of these crucial areas.
Chu can take some immediate steps. No fewer than 25 appliance efficiency standards are overdue from the Energy Dept.—they were delayed or blocked by the Bush Administration. "They will cover everything from fluorescent tube lights to home refrigerators and clothes washers to residential central A/Cs," explains Andrew deLaski, executive director of the Appliance Standards Awareness Project. "The potential energy savings impact is huge. We figure, if set at strong levels, the savings would reach about 165 billion kilowatt hours per year by 2030. That's about enough to power all the homes in Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, and Illinois combined. Utility bills would be cut by $16 billion per year."
Chu can also redirect the department's research budget and give boosts to renewable energy. Beyond that, though, his success will depend on working well with others, especially Carol Browner, President Obama's climate and energy czar. Somerville, for one, believes Chu has what it takes. "He won't be intimidated by anyone else in the room. But he's also gracious and courteous to people," he says. That combination could enable Chu to carve out a powerful niche within the Administration.
It also helps that Chu has grasped a range of scientific disciplines. His Nobel Prize was for work in basic physics. He figured out a way to trap atoms with lasers at very cold temperatures, allowing an unprecedented look at their properties. The work has also led to the creation of new states of matter, with potential applications in computing and cryptography. Yet Chu quickly branched out from physics. He discovered that the same basic techniques could enable scientists to grab hold of, and study, individual molecules of DNA. That, in turn, led him into microbiology. And that, combined with his drive to create new low-carbon fuels, led to using microbes to turn plant material into new fuels.
There are high hopes for Chu. One of the conditions he insisted on before taking the job was being able to put his own smart people into key slots at the department. If anyone can whip the unwieldy Energy Dept. into shape, it could be the Nobel Laureate and his team. Not bad for a guy who once didn't even see himself as the most accomplished member of his own family.
Carey is a senior correspondent for BusinessWeek in Washington.