• Eli is a contributing correspondent for Science magazine.

Putting the E back into DOE: Three Ways Chu Could Energize Energy

11 December 2008 12:50 pm

Steve Chu could be a groundbreaking energy secretary for the energy research efforts of President-elect Barack Obama's Administration in several ways. It's not just that Chu will be the first life-long scientist— and a Nobel prize-winning physicist at that—to run a department which spends more than $15 billion a year on physical science research, including weapons work. (Previous energy secretaries have usually been political allies of the president, which Chu isn't; a Naval Admiral and a power industry official have previously held the post.) But his selection, and new clues from Obama's transition team, could signal some big changes in the way that the United States conducts science to tackle the energy challenge.

First there's the big picture for the Department of Energy, a sprawling, $23 billion per year agency that manages twenty national laboratories and roughly a dozen nuclear waste cleanup projects. DOE spends roughly $9 billion to maintain the U.S. nuclear arsenal, roughly $10 billion on the waste sites, about only $4 billion on applied energy research, and close to $5 billion on basic physical science. Congress has historically preferred that lopsided balance. But recent fights between appropriators on Capitol Hill and a veto-threat-wielding White House over the budget (such as this skirmish) have prevented the agency from steadily doubling that basic research component—something both sides want to do.  Money is tight, but Obama won't be threatening a veto over spending bills and moreover, he has promised to double the budget. So that, along with the appointment of a Nobel prize-winning physicist to run DOE, means the agency will probably do more and more science, including applied research as well as fundamental physics. Chu was one of the authors of a highly influential report from the U.S. National Academies on the link between basic science and the "Gathering Storm" that faced the U.S. if it didn't improve its technical know-how.

Obama's thinking along the same lines. Dan Arvizu, director of DOE's National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado, met this week with transition officials and tells ScienceInsider that they are brainstorming about how to "reorient the department" more towards science. "It's a tough job trying to balance it all, and they know that," Arvizu says.

Second, within the $5 billion spent on the fundamental physical science research, Chu will have some interesting choices. Bush's DOE has been trying to expand the yearly budget for basic science related to energy (think creating and understanding new material structures, material science for hydrogen energy, nuclear physics to improve reactors) from roughly $1.2 billion to $1.5 billion, but again, the budget impasse has continually stymied this. With Bush out of the picture, there's every reason to think that Chu will try to expand this kind of research, dubbed "use-inspired-basic-research," even more. After all, he himself left a wildly successful career in basic physics to explore how to use basic research to solve the energy-and-climate crisis, and as the current director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab in California, he has asked other scientists to do the same. Expect DOE to dangle dollars to encourage more and more chemists, physicists, and material scientists to look for ways to use their science to solve specific energy problems.

Finally, there's Chu's enthusiastic support for a new energy research concept called ARPA-E – he might have even invented it. The wonky sounding agency was meant to be an unclassified version of DARPA, the Pentagon's risk-taking, blue-sky research arm. The Gathering Storm report, of which Chu was one of the authors, called for the creation of the agency, which would pursue risky energy research with big payoffs. (Chu later was ARPA-E's advocate in congressional testimony and public appearances.) Congress passed a law creating the program within DOE last year, but DOE hasn't appointed a director or tried to fund it. Chu would reverse that policy immediately if Obama lets him, but the president-elect has yet to take a position on ARPA-E. Chu could quickly change that.

Of course, to push DOE to do more science, more basic science related to energy, and more high-risk, high reward research, Chu will need to win over Congress, which controls his budget and is full of lawmakers hungry for DOE construction and cleanup projects in their states. But Obama has chosen about the most qualified scientist one can imagine to make the case for putting the E back into DOE. The months and years ahead will determine whether he's got the political skills to succeed.

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