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Chu Wants DOE to Pick Up the Pace

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Speaking today before a friendly audience of science policy wonks, Energy Secretary Steven Chu railed against the conservative culture of the agency he runs and described his struggles to meet its mission of helping the country move to a less carbon-intensive economy. "Newton didn't get it quite right," Chu told the AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy. "A body in motion tends to stop the next day if pressure is not continually applied."

Describing the sprawling Department of Energy as a place in which "everyone is afraid of making a mistake," Chu regaled the luncheon audience with examples of how his reforms have encountered stiff opposition. He described a "cottage industry" that had sprung up around a DOE loan program in which consultants were charging $225,000 to help prepare an application because applicants weren't getting any help from DOE. After he suggested that "we help people by responding to their questions," Chu says, he was told that such assistance would be improper because it might put other applicants at a disadvantage. His reply was that "there are two ways to be fair. You can help no one, or you can help everyone. And then I said, consider the alternative." Told that the applications were running up to 1000 pages, he added dryly, "I think a 50-page limit is reasonable." 

Chu also appealed for help from the audience. He said that DOE will need 300 to 400 reviewers in the next 6 months to handle the expected flood of grant applications triggered by DOE's share of the $787 billion stimulus package and the hike in its annual budget for 2009. "In my first week on the job, I asked for a list of reviewers in [programs that fund] photovoltaics and batteries, which are fields that I know something about. I hadn't heard of any of them. And that was a little bit frightening to me." He asked scientists to volunteer their time so that he could meet his goal of having "the very best reviewers in the country."