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Autumn Symposium

Dr Chu Goes to Washington

Why Is it Important for Scientists to Take Part in Government?
Steven Chu
p. 44

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Source: La lettre, no. 37, December 2013

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1For the opening of its Autumn Symposium, the Collège de France had the pleasure of welcoming Steven Chu, former US Secretary of Energy.

2Steven Chu started his career at the Bell laboratories, an extraordinary breeding ground for young scientists, several of whom were subsequently awarded a Nobel Prize. In 1997, he himself received the Physics Nobel Prize, along with two other researchers: Claude Cohen-Tannoudji, Professor at the Collège de France, and William D. Phillips of the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg (United States). Steven Chu was awarded this prize for his discovery of atom cooling and trapping methods using laser beams. The changes in the order of magnitude of the temperatures that can be reached with these methods were used to build atomic clocks of unprecedented precision. Professor Chu sub­sequently broadened his research to biology, applying methods developed during his physics research to the manipulation of biological molecules such as DNA strands. With this very broad expertise, in 2008 he accepted the pos­ition of Secretary of Energy that US President Barack Obama offered to him. In 2012, he returned to a strictly scientific activity, and currently holds a double Chair in biology and physics at Stanford University in California.

3In his talk at the Collège de France, Steven Chu shared an all too rare experience: that of an active scientist in the ­highest echelons of the State, faced with political de­cisions on sensitive topics such as energy renewal and global warming. Convinced of the crucial contribution a scientist can make at the highest governmental level, he presented three cases on which he was personally involved: the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon platform in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, the Fukushima nuclear accident in 2011, and the Hanford nuclear site. The latter example is particularly striking. Formerly a plutonium production site, Hanford is currently the largest nuclear waste storage site in the United States. During discussions with engineers at the site, Professor Chu realized that the storage method needed to be totally re­designed. These three examples clearly showed that scientific expertise positively complements engin­eering skills, and that it brings up issues that otherwise would not necessarily have been raised. But if scientists are to be able to provide effective support, it is imperative that they be given important political positions. Had he not been Secretary of Energy, Professor Chu would certainly never have been able to order the overhaul of waste treatment on the Hanford site.

4The professor concluded his speech by discussing climate change and commenting on the role of time in relation to science and democracy. Drawing a seemingly sur­prising analogy­ between the dangers of tobacco and global ­warming, Steven Chu emphasized the long-term nature of the changes induced, which democratic decision-making processes struggle­ to grasp. Following the rise of the tobacco industry it took twenty years to become aware of the concomitant development of lung cancers, and it will take at least 50 years, perhaps even a century, to take full stock of the consequences of global warming. Oceans, which cover most of the Earth’s surface, are comprised of naturally cold lower layers, which need a long time to mix with the upper layers. These upper layers are the first to be affected by global warming. For all of these sensitive questions regarding our planet today and tomorrow, Steven Chu stressed how crucial it is for governments to take cognizance of scientists’ expertise – irrespective of their energy or climate policy. For science is the ally, not the enemy, of democracy.

Listen to the full paper at, along with a 4-minute interview on the topic “Taking the Scientific Word to the Highest Level of the State”.

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Steven Chu, « Dr Chu Goes to Washington », La lettre du Collège de France [En ligne], 8 | mars 2014, mis en ligne le 11 août 2015, consulté le 24 mars 2017. URL :

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Steven Chu

Physics Nobel Prize Laureate, former US Secretary of Energy. Professor of Physics and Molecular & Cellular Physiology, and William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of Humanities and Sciences, Department of Physics, Stanford University

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