Coinciding conveniently with our trip, the new issue of Rolling Stone profiles Steven Chu, Obama’s Energy Secretary. (You can read a PDF here.) The Department of Energy is unquestionably a bureaucratic mess (exhibit A: the Superconducting Super Collider), and Chu says he is committed to supporting good science rather than playing politics — a refreshing change for the department, considering that one congressional science staffer told Jeff Goodell, the piece’s author, “In the past, the only qualification necessary to becoming secretary of energy was that you knew nothing about energy.”
Certainly, the DOE’s convoluted history and potentially conflicting missions of nuclear safety and scientific advancement make for their share of impossible situations. In an interview on Thursday, Dr. John Peoples, the former Fermilab director who was in charge of decommissioning the SSC, described the problems that the agency faces within the government and that physics faces within the agency. But the Rolling Stone article takes a simplistic view of those tensions –- and particularly of the National Labs, calling them “overstaffed fiefdoms with antiquated research priorities.”
I’m not sure what he meant by “overstaffed,” but it’s worth pointing out that physicists run these incomprehensibly complicated machines 24 hours a day for months at a time while taking data. If and when there are staffing redundancies in scientific departments, they presumably exist to ensure the continued operation of an important government project that costs an incredible amount to build and run.
But more importantly, the physics research going on at the National Labs is far from antiquated — in fact, it is often aggressively cutting edge. Fermilab and Argonne in particular have their eyes so far beyond the LHC that they actually have to wait for CERN’s data to catch up with their plans to build the next generation of experiments. Even if Goodell isn’t interested in anything but the latest energy technology, where exactly does he think this research takes place?
We’re certainly fans of Chu’s (Nick even has a picture of him on his wall), and I sincerely hope he accomplishes his goal of making the DOE less bureaucratic and more effective. I also hope he takes a more optimistic and informed view of the National Labs’ place in those plans than Goodell apparently does.
p.s. For more on DOE idiosyncrasies, stay tuned for a post about the Superconducting Super Collider. We are visiting the abandoned site today!