Comment »Posted on Monday 23 March 2009 at 5:05 pm by Jacob Aron
In Musings, Science Policy

Nobel Prize winner Dr. Steven Chu is the US’s new energy secretary, appointed by President Obama earlier this year. This NYT article on his transition from physicist to policy maker makes for interesting reading.

Dr. Chu is finding his move from Stanford’s physics department to Washington like being “dumped in the deep end of the pool”. He says “I didn’t appreciate how much of a public figure you become,” as he struggles with no longer being able to speak his mind:

“I’m constantly being told that I have to be careful what I say to the press and in public. I can’t speculate out loud anymore. Everything I say is taken with total seriousness.”

His difficulty in adjusting highlights the difference between scientists and politicians. The scientist will do a lot of thinking, explore different possibilities and generally take their time. In contrast, the politician is expected to have all the answers at their fingertips and never put a foot wrong.

Dan Leistikow, the Energy Department’s director of public affairs, thinks we should allow Dr. Chu time to make the change. “A Nobel scientist is more likely to figure out Washington than a career politician is to figure out how to deal with carbon sequestration,” he said.

It seems though that politics really is a different world for Dr. Chu, as he finds that even Newton’s first law of motion doesn’t apply. Newton said that any object in motion will remain in motion, without the need for an external force. Not so in Washington. “In a bureaucracy, if you start something in motion, it either stops or gets derailed,” said Dr. Chu. “You have to keep applying force.”

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