Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Confirmation Hearings for the Secretary of Energy

The appointment of Dr Steven Chu to the position of Secretary of Energy is one of the more momentous, in regard to the topics that we post on here. So it is useful to look at some of the things that he said today, during his confirmation hearing.

And while I am waiting to see the feed from CSPAN I did catch the very last part of his remarks live, in which he was talking about the need to redirect the focus of science in this country so that the “best and brightest” scientists will be attracted to it, and work on the problems. In order to do so he recognized that some of them would have to be attracted, and then retrained. Sigh!

Sigh, indeed! We’ve been through this before. Unfortunately what this means, at least the last time around, is another excuse to pour large amounts of money into the National Laboratories (from which Dr Chu is coming) funding areas for which they have not had background experience. If I can give but one example from the last time around. The Jet Propulsion Lab, which I will gladly admit has some of the brightest folk in the country, was given large amounts of money to develop the next generation mining machines, to enhance performance of the existing technology. Now I shouldn’t complain too loudly, because a couple of years after they were first funded they came knocking at our door, and we helped come up with an answer.

But the point is that we were already out there. They spent two years, and a whole pile of money, learning and retraining in areas where existing competent engineers were already in place (but not funded at National Lab levels). But the many universities that taught and do research in this field do not qualify as “the best and brightest” since they are in states such as Nevada, Virginia, Missouri, West Virginia, and Utah and when their qualifications to speak are brought up, they are quite often derided as being “mouthpieces for the industry.” Which as a general rule we are not.

Andrew Leonard’s column in Salon brought my attention to the hearing, alas too late to catch anything but the last few minutes, and unfortunately he only heard the first few, and commented only on the opening statement.

Catching only the end, where Dr Chu was talking about the fourth generation biofuels and said that we could get to testing “in a few years”, and that while he didn’t know where the solutions would come from, except only that they would come from “the best and the brightest”, leaves me worried about an elitist approach, which as I said gives me some concerns. It also leaves me worried that he does not understand the scale and imminence of the crisis. But I will wait for the transcript or the full feed and comment on that later.

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