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Seth Zenz | Imperial College London | UK

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Chu to be Nominated Secretary of Energy

We learned yesterday — or overnight, for those of us on the other side of Atlantic and asleep for the wrong part of the American news cycle — that President-elect Barack Obama’s choice for Secretary of Energy will be Steve Chu.  This is very exciting news.  Not only is Dr. Chu a Nobel Prize-winning physicist — rather unusual for an Energy Secretary, since after all the Department of Energy has far more under its purview than just the Office of Science — he’s also the director of my lab, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.  I can imagine that the atmosphere back in Berkeley today will be electric.

I hope I can be forgiven, with the nomination so “close to home” on so many levels, for thinking a little bit in particular about how my field of research will be affected.  Of course, Sean Carroll is right when he says that “just because Chu is an accomplished physicist, this doesn’t mean that researchers should expect a bonanza of new funds.”  Certainly there’s no reason to anticipate such a bonanza for particle physics.   Although Berkeley Lab’s founding project was particle accelerator research, and we still have quite a number of excellent particle physicists (if I do say so myself), over the decades it has developed a very diverse research program and a focus on bringing together different disciplines to solve real-world problems.  This interdisciplinary environment has been expanded during Dr. Chu’s tenure as Lab Director, and his particular focus has been on the development of technology to address energy resources and climate change.  His interest and expertise in this area is doubtless one of the key reasons that he has been selected for the new job.

This past January, during the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory ATLAS group’s annual “back to the mothership” group meeting in Berkeley, Director Chu joined us for dinner one evening and gave a brief, informal talk.  Of course, he couldn’t say what he might like to say to every group at the Lab, that our research was his top priority, because that wasn’t true.  But what he did say is that fundamental research, including fundamental particle physics research, is a critical part of any long-term effort to address concrete problems.  He was very aware of the ongoing funding difficulties that our field is having, both in terms of the complexities on the political side and of the effects that uncertain and diminished funding have on the operation of our experiments and laboratories.  I came away with a sense that, although he had many things to focus on beyond my own area of research, he knew a lot about our work and had an extraordinary understanding of how it fit into the big picture.

For Dr. Chu, the picture is now getting far larger.  His nomination comes along with several other officials who will be dedicated to environmental and energy issues, and we can expect his first priority as Secretary of Energy to be working with them and with the President on a new national policy in those areas.  I hope he will also be able to work with the Congress on stabilizing funding for particle physics and preserving what he calls the “intellectual capital” of our scientists, engineers, and technicians working at places like Fermilab.  From what I’ve seen, he has the knowledge and perspective necessary to keep pace with the many tasks that will require his attention as Secretary of Energy, and to balance our nation’s urgent needs in terms of energy policy with our long-term interest in continued excellence in fundamental science.

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