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Globe Editorial

A novel, Nobel idea at Energy

December 18, 2008
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WHEN Steven Chu won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1997, he said, "It's remarkable what simple curiosity can lead to." His appointment by President-elect Barack Obama as energy secretary breaks an eight-year gag on scientific curiosity at a critical time for the country and the planet.

One of the Bush administration's most egregious insults to America's collective intelligence was the repeated deletion of scientific findings on global warming from reports and testimonies from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The omissions were meant to dull public understanding of the impact of autos and industries on global warming and of how climate change will worsen disasters, diseases, and disparities. Nearly every year brought fresh news of deletions.

President Bush's first EPA administrator, Christine Todd Whitman, quit in 2003 amid the censorship. In 2006, top NASA climate scientist James Hansen said the administration tried to muzzle him on the need to reduce greenhouse gases.

Chu, the director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, shared the Nobel for his work cooling and trapping atoms with lasers for more detailed examination. He would be the first energy secretary who is a current scientist. All previous 11 energy secretaries going back to President Carter ran chemical or power companies or were military men or politicians. The second energy secretary under Carter, Charles Duncan, had been a Coca-Cola executive. Chu would be a secretary who knows how things go better with atoms.

The appointment is being hailed by environmental groups who see Chu as a science nerd who can ably articulate how snowpacks and glaciers are disappearing, and how the poor will disproportionately be hit by droughts and storm surges spawned by climate change. He is unafraid to call coal an environmental "nightmare." He comes from those corners of curiosity that leave no rock, bacteria, yeast, ray of sun, or blade of switchgrass unturned, or unexamined for alternative energy. He has even cited the potential of decaying logs crawling with termites that convert cellulose into ethanol.

Chu has forged industry partnerships without being accused of selling out, attracting $500 million from Big Oil's BP for biofuel research.

Last year, Chu told Reuters, "If I were emperor, I would put the pedal to the floor on energy efficiency and conservation."

His appointment is the best sign yet that eight years of official hostility to science is about to end. We hope he guns the engine on energy independence.

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