DOE wants to become more like Bell Labs

The leading supporter of physical science in America — the Energy Department — finances first-rate, groundbreaking basic research. Indeed, “this is absolutely one of the best things that DOE does,” crows Energy Secretary Steven Chu. However, this Nobel Prize winning physicist adds, his agency won’t win superlatives for helping translate such research into commercial developments.

Chu met, late last week, with reporters at the Platts Energy Podium, a newsmakers series in Washington, D.C.  In office only four weeks now, this former director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory volunteers that he’s been spending “a considerable amount of time” trying to figure out how to see that industrial applications of DOE-funded research aren’t lost.

“I was at Bell Labs for nine years,” Chu notes. It was one of a handful of large, industrially funded research centers that saw the value of funding basic research to catalyze the next generation of technical advances and products. Indeed, he observes, “a lot of inventions that came out of Bell Labs actually fed the entire semiconductor industry.”

Right now, DOE’s first priority must be “focusing on economic recovery,” Chu says. But in terms of its long-term vision, “my dream would be that DOE — especially its national labs system — develop its centers of research and innovation” into something that industry recognizes and taps.
In fact, owing to the agency’s growing emphasis on renewables and alternative energy research, he expects DOE may soon fuel the development of “a green industry, where American has the opportunity to be a leader.”

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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