Remember the Steven Chu controversy?
The New York Times reports today that president elect Barack Obama has chosen Steven Chu, director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, for the position of energy secretary in his new administration. The Times article quotes Scott Segal, director of an industry group called the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council saying: “[Chu’s] experience seems to dovetail perfectly with the president-elect’s commitment to bringing new energy technology to market in a timely fashion… An understanding of the art of the possible in energy technology will be critical to the development of a cost-effective climate change policy.”
But while Chu might be garnering positive publicity now, it wasn’t so long ago that he was at the center of a heated controversy at Berkeley concerning his support of a deal with British Petroleum to provide partial funding for a new Energy Biosciences Institute that would grant the company unprecedented rights to the intellectual property it produces. A 2007 article about the deal for the Chronicle of Higher Education quotes Daniel S. Greenberg, author of Science for Sale: The Perils, Rewards, and Delusions of Campus Capitalism saying “universities have been so eager to enter into business deals with industry, they will do quite stupid things.” Critics of the deal have also raised concerns over “whether the biofuels institute will be too influenced by BP’s corporate agenda.…” According to the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights “because four of the eight seats on the governing board will be controlled by BP, the company can block proposed research from going forward.” Proponents however argue that BP’s support will significantly boost research aimed at the production of new and cleaner energy and get those technologies more quickly into the hands of consumers. Now, with Chu in a prime position to further enmesh the private and public spheres in planning for the nation’s energy future, one can only speculate as to how high the stakes in the debate have been raised.
For more on the controversial role modern scientists play in transforming knowledge into power and profit checkout some of Greenberg’s other books including Science, Money, and Politics: Political Triumph and Ethical Erosion or The Politics of Pure Science.