A legacy Steven Chu can be proud of

President Barack Obama talks with Dr. John Holdren, Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, and Energy Secretary Steven Chu in the Oval Office, May 7, 2012.
President Barack Obama talks with Dr. John Holdren, Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, and Energy Secretary Steven Chu in the Oval Office, May 7, 2012.
White House/flickr

Long-time viewers of The Rachel Maddow Show may recall the “Geek Week” segments aired in May 2010, which included an interview with Energy Secretary Steven Chu. (The segment also noted why At Least I Am A Nerd.com still redirects to the show’s video player.)

Nearly three years later, we’ve learned that Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, will leave his post in President Obama’s second term, stepping down from the Department of Energy later this month. With this in mind, it’s worth pausing to appreciate the significance of Chu’s first-term efforts, which haven’t generated front-page news, but which carry extraordinary significance.

Time’s Michael Grunwald flagged this gem from Steve LeVine, which argued that Chu took important steps to put the United States “on course for a new economic revival, led by energy technology.”

The idea has been to provide fixed sums of concentrated, multi-year funding for scientists to solve really big problems. They have been housed within two Chu creations. The first is Energy Frontier Research Centers, which have been granted $2 million to $5 million a year to find novel ways to revolutionize solar power, nano-scale materials engineering, advanced batteries, solid-state lighting, superconductivity, and more. […]

Chu’s second creation has been more ambitious: the creation of a series of “innovation hubs.” With $125 million in funding spread over five years, each of the five hubs has been tasked with unraveling big, seemingly intractable problems: how to emulate photosynthesis; make nuclear power safe; make buildings superlatively efficient; create a battery more or less equivalent in energy performance with fossil fuels; and invent a host of inventive new materials to replace ones in short supply in the US, such as rare-earth elements.

As NPR added, these efforts also included the launch of ARPA-E – basically an internal R&D incubator project at the Department of Energy – which in turn “funded a number of cutting-edge technologies.”

Has this approach led to immediate breakthroughs that produced blockbuster headlines in Obama’s first term? No, but that misses the point.

LeVine’s report concluded:

It is early. Putting in place these petri dishes for big breakthroughs created the profile of a very different Department of Energy and a very different government. Bell Labs, along with rivals Xerox-PARC and RCA Labs, are gone, and by and large American companies no longer fund the type of research that in those days produced big and basic technological leaps. This absence is thought by some to be one reason for America’s economic lethargy. If the US eventually gets its mojo back, Steven Chu’s brainchildren may be partly responsible.

Brad Plumer added that ARPA-E is funding “novel ideas like laser drilling for geothermal energy, advanced lithium-ion batteries, and techniques to manufacture cheaper solar cells.”

Could one of these technologies eventually transform the energy industry and become a big part of Chu’s legacy? Perhaps. But it could take years to find out.

“Just as today’s boom in shale gas production was made possible by Department of Energy research from 1978 to 1991, some of the most significant work may not be known for decades,” Chu wrote in his farewell letter. “What matters is that our country will reap the benefits of what we have started.”

Just in the abstract, Obama’s decision to bring on Chu – a physics professor, Nobel laureate, formerly of Bell Labs, former head of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory – for a cabinet post was a milestone. After all, so much of our politics is dominated by anti-intellectualism and a fierce hostility towards science and reason.

But while Chu’s role in the president’s cabinet had symbolic value, it also created a foundation for generations of progress on energy policy. Whether Americans are accustomed to hearing about the secretary on a regular basis or not, Chu will be missed.