Big Picture News, Informed Analysis

Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise. Former National Post & Toronto Star columnist, past vice president of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

Steven Chu’s Juvenile Score Keeping

When someone’s won a Nobel Prize, who cares how long they served in Cabinet?

In 1997, Steven Chu and two colleagues won a Nobel Prize in physics. Using multiple lasers, he’d discovered a way to slow down atoms so they could be more readily studied in the lab. At the age of 49, therefore, he’d already scaled the heady heights of scientific fame and fortune.

Eleven years later, when Chu was sworn in as Energy Secretary of the United States, he became responsible for a $25 billion pot of taxpayers’ money each year. During the four years he ran the Department of Energy, it made several disastrous green energy investments. (When grilled by a Congressman about these disasters, Chu nevertheless awarded himself an A-minus.)

Solar panel startup Solyndra, for example, received more than half a billion taxayer dollars before going bankrupt. In late 2011, a Washington Post news story began this way:

At a number of points in its troubled history…Solyndra faced dire financial problems that threatened its survival. Yet at each crisis, Energy Secretary Steven Chu and officials at his agency failed to take steps that critics say could have limited taxpayer losses when the company collapsed this summer.

[see extensive Post coverage of this and other green scandals here]

Likewise, a 2012 CBS investigation identified

12 clean energy companies that are having trouble after collectively being approved for more than $6.5 billion in federal assistance. Five have filed for bankruptcy: The junk bond-rated Beacon, Evergreen Solar, SpectraWatt, AES’ subsidiary Eastern Energy and Solyndra. [bold added]

When Chu resigned in 2013, the scientific community chose to emphasize a bit of trivia. Physics World, a magazine published by the UK-based Institute of Physics, began its news story by declaring:

When Chu departs, most likely at the end of February, he will have served in the post for four years – longer than any of the 14 previous heads of the Department of Energy…

The government’s official website lists only 11 Energy Secretaries between the time the department was created in 1977 and when Chu took over, but never mind.

Three days later, (which is owned by the Institute of Physics despite having a dramatically different appearance), published the same article, presenting the above-quoted sentence in bold.

US-based Science similarly reported that Chu “will enter the record books as the longest-serving Secretary in DOE’s 35-year history.”

Chu’s official biography at the Energy Department’s website fails to mention this data point, but he himself apparently considers it important. For example, the ‘longest serving’ claim can now be found in:

  1. his department of physics bio at Stanford
  2. his Berkeley Lab bio
  3. his 2013 panelist bio at the Nobel Prize website
  4. the bio associated with a 2014 lecture he delivered at Cambridge University
  5. the written text associated with a 2016 Columbia University interview

I’m genuinely puzzled by this. I mean, why would brilliant minds obsess about such a detail? There are many reasons why cabinet posts take time to fill, or why someone might leave one. For example, the New York Times says Energy Secretary Federico F. Pena resigned in 1989 due to the toll his schedule was taking on his family (he had three children under the age of eight at the time).

There’s a handy online tool in which, if you enter two dates, the time span between them is automatically calculated. Do this for Chu and you discover he served for 1,552 days. But five of the 11 Energy Secretaries who preceded him were in the same ballpark.

James Watkins served as Energy Secretary for 1,421 days (92% of Chu’s tenure), John Herrington for 1443 days (93%), Samuel Bodman for 1,449 days (93%), Hazel O’Leary for 1,459 (94%), and Spencer Abraham for 1,472 (95%).

Had Chu departed on the day he released his resignation letter (1 February 2013), he would have tied Abraham at 1,472 days. His willingness to stick around for a few extra months while his successor was recruited is the reason he ended up at 1,552 days.

But so what? When you’ve won a bleeping Nobel Prize why bother boasting about this?

To my eyes this is juvenile, small-minded score keeping. Sure, the ‘longest serving’ record is a fun cocktail party anecdote. But why do scientifically trained people consider it a major achievement?


Postscript: In 1989, Harold Varmus won a Nobel Prize in medicine. Four years later, he became director of the US National Institutes of Health, a federal agency that also disperses tens of billions of taxpayer dollars annually. Varmus’ term was more than six years in duration – 2,229 days.



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This entry was posted on March 13, 2017 by in activist scientists, historical perspective and tagged , .