Published online 12 December 2008 | 456, 849-850 (2008) | doi:10.1038/456849a
Corrected online: 14 December 2008

News

Nobel physicist to run energy agency

Obama appointments likely to focus on renewable energy and implementing cap and trade.

Steven ChuSteve Chu vaulted from running a university department to a national laboratory to a federal agency.LBNL

By choosing Nobel-prizewinning physicist Steven Chu to head the Department of Energy (DoE), US President-elect Barack Obama has sent a clear message: solving climate issues in a world dependent on fossil fuels will depend on science coming up with new energy technologies.

Three other key positions in Obama's climate and energy team have also been informally settled, and they point to an administration that will be serious about climate change and the regulation of emissions. Carol Browner, who was director of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) during the 1990s, will become a new Cabinet-level climate and energy coordinator. Taking over the EPA will be Lisa Jackson, the former head of New Jersey's Department of Environmental Protection. And Nancy Sutley, a deputy mayor of Los Angeles who has worked on California climate and water issues, is to be named head of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

But it is the selection of Chu, director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) in California, that has excited academics across the country. They interpret it as a message that not only will energy research be an administration priority, but that science itself will have a voice at the table. "It's really pulling science out of the shadows in the United States," says Philip Bucksbaum, a physicist at Stanford University in California and a friend of Chu's since graduate school in the 1970s. "It's just exciting to know that there's a physicist — a really smart one and not at all quiet and retiring — sitting at the Cabinet table."

Chu will move from the LBNL, a US$600-million, 4,000-employee lab, to the $24-billion DoE, sometimes called the 'Department of Everything' because it oversees 17 national labs with missions varying from renewable energy research to particle physics, and from the design of nuclear weapons to the disposal of nuclear waste. It is rare for a DoE secretary to rise from within, and just as rare for the secretary — typically a politician or businessperson — to have a science background at all. (The current secretary, Samuel Bodman, does have a doctorate in chemical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.)

Big step up

But there are some concerns about Chu's ability to manage such an unwieldy agency: he had never managed anything more unruly than an academic department of scientists before taking over the LBNL in 2005. Chu did his PhD in atomic physics at the University of California, Berkeley; in the late 1970s, he moved to Bell Labs in New Jersey, where he used lasers to cool atoms nearly to a standstill, creating the 'optical molasses' that led to his 1997 Nobel prize. He moved on to Stanford University, where his interests slowly shifted towards energy.

Bucksbaum says that if Chu could make the leap from Stanford department chair to the top of the LBNL, then he can survive atop the DoE. "My prediction is that he'll learn how to live in their world," he says. "He's a quick study." Chu is likely to need some help navigating the political world, as well as with the nuclear-weapons complex and non-proliferation issues, says physicist Michael Lubell, head of public affairs for the American Physical Society in Washington DC.

Chu has refocused the LBNL on its new mission: renewable energy. He has been creative in seeking new streams of funding, establishing a trio of related programmes under the umbrella of the Helios initiative. One programme seeks chemical improvements to harvesting solar power; a second, a $134-million, five-year programme called the Joint BioEnergy Institute, is working to improve biofuels. A third, the Energy Biosciences Institute, is pursuing similar goals with a different pot of money: $500 million over 10 years, in a partnership with other universities and the oil company BP. This has raised concerns about undue industry influence at the LBNL's neighbouring institute partner, the University of California, Berkeley (see Nature 445, 688–689; 2008).

But Graham Fleming, who was Chu's deputy at the LBNL before returning to the University of California, Berkeley, to work as a chemist, says it shows Chu's pragmatism. Chu's Nobel-prize autobiography speaks glowingly of his time at Bell Labs, then a Mecca for industry-supported, but unconstrained, pure research. "He doesn't feel that there is anything unclean or inappropriate about having connections with industry," says Fleming.

Nor does Chu seem bound ideologically to any one energy approach. Chu has said that nuclear power and carbon sequestration will play important parts, even as he has advocated energy efficiency as the quickest way to make major gains. Still, he has called coal his "worst nightmare" of a fuel.

Chu has also shown enthusiasm for biotechnology, which can be used to engineer better biofuel plants or microbes with advanced abilities to convert cellulose into fuel. His optimism for biotechnology stands in contrast to the record of Browner, who as the head of the EPA in the 1990s instituted strict rules that regulated biotech research and development (R&D) in the same way as agricultural chemicals. Roger Beachy, president of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St Louis, Missouri, says he hopes the agency will soften its stance towards plant-science R&D. "They've taken a very risk-averse approach," he says. "I'm not sure that that's going to be good for the environment or the economy."

Frank O'Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, a non-profit organization in Washington DC, says that Browner will bring a political tenacity that helped her to update national clean-air standards for ozone and fine particulates. "She was faced with massive opposition, even within the administration itself, and she managed to prevail," he says.

Browner's precise duties and powers have not yet been specified, but she is likely to play referee to inter-agency squabbles, says O'Donnell. "We've seen the DoE fight against the EPA," he says. "I think the new climate and energy adviser is going to tell these agencies, 'Knock it off, we're all on one team'."

Having someone at Cabinet level to represent the EPA director — which is not a Cabinet slot — would also be helpful as Browner and Jackson work to implement what is likely to be another Obama priority: a cap-and-trade system to curb carbon emissions. Jackson, a chemical engineer by training, helped to push New Jersey into adopting the 2007 Global Warming Response Act, which calls for ambitious greenhouse-gas cuts.

O'Donnell says Jackson and Browner are sure to work quickly to take advantage of a 2007 Supreme Court ruling that will allow them to treat carbon dioxide as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act. Browner, as a seasoned politician, could also provide some cover for Chu, a rookie in Washington DC. "Someone's going to come up with the right idea, and someone's going to figure out how to get it done," says Fleming. 

Corrected:

An earlier version of this story said the DoE oversees 10 national laboratories.
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