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Andrew Zimmerman Jones

Steven Chu Presents Merits of Scientific Thinking

By February 3, 2013

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Steven Chu, Secretary of Education and Nobel Prize winnerOn Friday, Feb. 1, Dr. Steven Chu announced that he would not be continuing as U.S. Secretary of Energy for a second term under President Barack Obama. I don't normally follow how these things work, but from what I gather it normally involves a pro forma letter written announcing the intention not to serve a second term. Chu ended up writing a 3,781 word term paper discussing his successes and failures as Energy Secretary and also outlining his vision for where American energy policy needs to head.

If you're interested, you can either read the complete letter on the DoE website or a recap of the major points, but I'd like to focus on Chu's opening remarks, which emphasize the way scientific ideas are judged:

I've always been inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King, who articulated his Dream of an America where people are judged not by skin color but "by the content of their character." In the scientific world, people are judged by the content of their ideas. Advances are made with new insights, but the final arbitrator of any point of view are experiments that seek the unbiased truth, not information cherry picked to support a particular point of view. The power of our work is derived from this foundation.


I have worked each day to move the Department in a direction where the political leadership and highest levels of career managers have the intellectual curiosity and wisdom to learn from the people who reported to them and where the subject matter experts - which should include managers at the highest levels - as well as employees at our national laboratories welcome their counsel and help. I grew up and matured in organizations where a graduate student or staff scientist could have a discussion with a company department head, a professor, a national lab director and be heard, not because of their rank in the organization, but because of the quality of their ideas.

Though Chu has been under a lot of political criticism for his stance on climate change and his belief in embracing shifts to alternative energy - a stance that he defends throughout his letter - it is my hope that this vision of following good scientific ideas and listening to the subject matter experts will be one that continues to be embraced by the Department of Energy in the years to come.


February 4, 2013 at 8:54 am
(1) D. R. Pitzer says:

Scientific thinking does not necessarily equate to proper economic thinking in Dr. Chu’s case. Case in point: Solyndra.

February 4, 2013 at 11:44 am
(2) john says:

Where Dr. Chu would indicate the difficulty is in the public or government accepting facts and embracing scientific progress, there are those who see using a central authority to direct research and technology as not only a hindrance, in the long run, but also as oppressive.
He may be a fine scientist, but his wishes for where that leads, regarding government, is a highly Orwellian place.

February 4, 2013 at 1:49 pm
(3) Jules Le Bon says:

Dr. Chu’s ideas are sound, but it is unrealistic to expect them to receive anything more than lip service in a political environment. The problem is that what is in the best interest (personal and ideological) of the employees, the president and congress, is often not in the best interest of those who hired them, the rest of us. That does not mean that a polictical decision is necessarily wrong, but it does mean the the incentives are wrong.

February 18, 2013 at 12:40 pm
(4) nick says:

I like a saying from Prof. Kaku:
What politicians and economists try to do is to split the pie in the best way. What scientists have done and promise to do is to make a bigger pie.

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