APS News

Inside the Beltway

Can Science and Politics Coexist?

by Michael S. Lubell, APS Director of Public Affairs


Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, Nobel Laureate, National Academy member, APS Fellow and former Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory director, is discovering just how rough Washington can be. Despite yeoman efforts on behalf of American science and technology, in less than a year he’s twice found himself caught in a political bear trap.

The “gotcha” mindset is nothing new to seasoned politicians. They know it comes with the territory. But for most scientists, who are trained to speak the “truth” as the profession demands, it is revelatory.

Chu’s first serious brush with the Washington hunting posse came last year, when his fingerprints appeared on the $500 million Solyndra loan guarantee. Let me be clear: he committed no legal transgression in approving government assistance to what appeared to be a promising company that in hindsight we now know made a very bad bet on the silicon futures market.

Solyndra was one of several businesses–Evergreen Solar was another–that had developed technologies requiring less silicon to produce solar power. If the price of silicon had continued to increase, they would have had investors knocking down their doors to buy a piece of their companies. But the price collapsed, and their balance sheets went completely sour.

Chu was carrying out an administration policy that Congress had authorized–providing incentives to encourage solar energy development. Opponents have challenged the wisdom of a political philosophy that injects the federal government so directly into the marketplace, but Chu’s critics went even further, lambasting him for alleged impropriety.

Though his congressional detractors combed through thousands of emails, they found nary a trace of a spoor. Nonetheless Chu’s reputation remained ensnared in the kind of innuendo for which Washington is famous.

The Solyndra furor had barely died down after months of hearings and accusations, when Chu once again found himself the subject of controversy, this time for a comment he made in 2008, when he was still the Berkeley lab director. This time, the context was oil, or more precisely the price of gasoline.

It’s no secret among political cognoscenti that consumers blame a president for anything that goes wrong economically, whether it's soaring prices or vanishing jobs. And the electoral fallout can be catastrophic. Just ask Jimmy Carter or George H.W. Bush.

So in an election year, with gas prices threatening to climb well past four dollars a gallon, it didn’t take long for Republicans to realize they might have a potent campaign issue. They blasted the President for pursuing policies they claimed exacerbated the price at the pump: limiting offshore drilling, delaying approval of the Keystone pipeline that would carry oil from Canada’s tar sands to U.S. Gulf Coast refineries and pushing for removal of tax incentives for oil and natural gas exploration. But although polls showed Obama’s approval rating eroding, they also showed the public didn’t completely buy the Republican charges.

But Chu’s 2008 statement gave Republicans the ammunition they needed. Before Obama had tapped him for a Cabinet post, Chu, in explaining to The Wall Street Journal how consumers might be enticed to buy more fuel-efficient cars, said, “Somehow we have to figure out how to boost the price of gasoline to the levels in Europe.”  If ever there was a “gotcha” quote that was it.

And with the GOP drums beating the Journal quote to a relentless refrain, just weeks ago Chu found himself disavowing his 2008 sentiments at a Senate hearing, because he had changed his position, given the fragile state of the economy.

Has either of these episodes tarnished Chu’s scientific reputation? Hardly, but together they serve as a warning to scientists who aspire to public office: Intellect and accomplishment, alone, even at the Nobel level, do not insulate you from the politics of science.

As physicists, we believe our work should live in a politics-free zone. But in reality, whenever science intersects the lives of citizens in a democracy, politics is a handmaiden, welcome or not. Consider the impending appropriations battles on the Hill.

President Obama’s opening salvo, a budget request for fiscal year 2013, may not quite place science on a funding pedestal, but it does protect research and STEM education from cuts the White House has proposed for other federal programs. Yet, the Obama plan tilts heavily toward strategic rather than discovery-driven programs: toward clean energy, for example, rather than neutrino physics.

Inevitably, some critics will take issue with the White House priorities, and as they fulminate, they unwittingly will be playing in a political arena fraught with contention and debate, rather than on a science terrain where truth and beauty are the only currencies of the realm.

Scientists may harbor the hope their work can be truly free from political intrusion and intrigue, but that hope ultimately will prove false. Engaging the public and spending time enlisting support of elected officials may seem demeaning to many research practitioners, but in the end it will do more to insulate their work from political meddling than almost anything else they can do.


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Editor: Alan Chodos