Steven Chu is a well respected scientist, national laboratory manager and biofuels focused researcher. He has been nominated by President-elect Barack Obama to be the Secretary of Energy, a position that puts him in charge of approximately 30,000 people and an annual budget of approximately $25 billion. As Dr. Chu stated in his testimony, the US Department of Energy employs more physical scientists than any other single organization in the country.
On this episode of The Atomic Show, I have cut in audio clips from the confirmation hearing that the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held to hear testimony from Dr. Chu about his priorities, how he would manage his department and the challenges that it faces in addressing climate change, energy security, and environmental restoration for its sprawling collection of research and development facilities.
I have a great deal of respect for Dr. Chu and for his ordered way of thinking, but I do have some concerns that he is too focused on a scientific approach to problem solving rather than an engineering one.
Let me explain. Though many people mentally link science and engineering, there is a fundamental difference in philosophy between the practitioners of the two important fields. Scientists like to study and find answers to questions that no one has yet solved. Engineers like to design and make things using the knowledge they can find in textbooks, graphs and reference material along with the practical knowledge that they can gain from actually engaging in their craft.
They know that they do not have a perfect knowledge of the universe, but they also know that their knowledge is good enough to create many amazing things. If they find a hard roadblock during the creation process, they are reasonably confident that they will find a way around the obstacle. Both science and engineering are important disciplines, but there is a time and a place for each to have primary influence. When it comes to addressing the world’s energy, climate and water supply challenges, there is no doubt that it is mainly an engineering problem, not a science project.
Unfortunately, Dr. Chu’s approach to the problem seems more influenced by his scientific bent than informed by a strong understanding of what is possible TODAY. His comments during the hearing lead me to believe that he does not yet have a good grasp of the approach needed to empower the people who ALREADY know how to reduce pollution, make energy available and affordable, and who know how to use that energy to reduce supply challenges for other important commodities like water and food.
As you listen to the Senators’ questions, Dr. Chu’s response and my interspersed commentary, you will realize just why I have more concerns about the department’s priorities and initial actions than does the Nuclear Energy Institute. There are a number of things we could be doing now, that do not necessarily involve a great deal of expenditure by the American taxpayers to simply encourage and enable proceeding with due haste to building and operating a new generation of devices that use fission instead of chemical combustion to provide an almost unlimited amount of emission free, reliable, energy.
Fission is not just an option, it is an imperative that has the potential to dramatically improve the lives of everyone on the planet – except those who have been unable to read the handwriting on the wall and continue to depend on selling fossil fuels at elevated prices to enable them to remain powerful and secure.
I know this is a minority view that would not be popular in the Senate committee with all of its competing interests – that is why I am a writer, a podcaster and an analyst, not a politician.