Science and politics: conversation with Steven Chu

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In March this year, the ISC (International Scientific Committee) gathered at ESPCI Paris - PSL to discuss the evolution of teaching and research. For the occasion, Steven Chu, professor at Stanford, Nobel laureate, Former Secretary of Energy in the Obama administration, and chairman of the ISC gave us his view on science and politics, on ESPCI, and on why he accepted the position.

Science and technology have been more and more on the forefront of society lately, what are the biggest challenges we face?

Steven Chu: We face many challenges: the biggest long-term challenges are energy, climate change and sustainability. With regard to energy, the Russian invasion of Ukraine shows how deeply dependent we are on fossil fuels. Russia can no longer be seen as a trusted supplier. Also, while the transition from coal to natural gas was always considered to be a transition to carbon-free sources of energy, it is now apparent that a detailed road map for this transition was not in place. In the short term we have to find alternative sources to Russian oil and natural gas, but in the long term, Europe, the U.S. and Asia need to develop more resilient energy supplies.

As the dependence on renewable electricity and the electrification of vehicles increases, we will need dramatically improved energy storage, transmission and distribution. Nuclear power also needs to be considered as a backup source of energy. Smaller, modular nuclear power plants that can be designed to essentially eliminate the possibility of radiation contamination and can be mass produced to achieve economies of scale. For most of the time, nuclear power could be used to produce carbon-free hydrogen through the hydrolysis of water, but on occasions where storage energy cannot supply our energy needs, this power source can be switched over to provide electricity. Significantly improved methods of dealing with spent fuel are also being developed.

Another crucial aspect concerns the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of agriculture. More greenhouse gas comes from food production than from electrical power generation. There is a huge opportunity to revolutionize agriculture so that synthetic nitrogen fertilizers made from reforming natural gas can be replaced by microbes that convert atmospheric nitrogen in the soil into a form that plants can use. In addition to reducing CO2 generation from fertilizer production, the plant-microbe interactions will eliminate N2O emissions due to fertilizer run-off. The next agricultural revolution, based on remarkable advances in biology, will allow us increase food production per hectare to feed the growing population, use photosynthesis to capture and sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

So what can scientists and universities do about it?

Steven Chu:They can help in several ways: train people who can find solutions, within the universities or even changing their professional path later in life as I did. I started to get interested in seeking better science and technology solutions to climate change when I became director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory run by the U.S. Department of Energy in 2004. 

What do you think about the links between science, industry and politics?

Steven Chu: In western governments, most of the people in the government are neither scientists nor engineers, whereas many decisions that are made are technical ones. All policy makers have to depend expert advisors, but it is easier if someone with deep technical training asks the right questions so that they can better separate unbiased advice from that tainted by economic or political agendas. Every country could benefit from having more scientists in the government. My own experience was that I was able to identify and attract top scientists and engineers, willing to join the government, to help solve the climate challenges based on scientific knowledge.

Why did you accept to chair the ISC?

Steven Chu: I was told by a former student of mine, Stephen Quake (Stanford Professor and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s Head of Science), that I should really consider this invitation because ESPCI is a special engineering school and I could be of service. As I looked deeper into the school, I found that. the ESPCI was a real jewel in the French educational system, and unique in its combination of theoretical grounding and experimental training. The best thing I learned about it was the graduates go there exclusively to study science and engineering. When they leave, they want to become practicing scientists and engineers, not managers.

«your time at the ESPCI will be a special time in your life»
Prof. Steven Chu, Chairman of the ISC at ESPCI Paris-PSL

What do you think of our way of teaching?

Steven Chu: It is important for students to be steeped in the most quantitative and fundamental foundations of science. To understand something deeply is to develop an intuitive understanding. Learning physics and chemistry in the most quantitative way possible is like learning a new language: and learning a new language is best done when we are young. I support the expansion of the biology curriculum, but it should remain secondary to the core subjects of the ESPCI. It’s easier to switch from physics and chemistry to biology rather than going the other way.

You had a glimpse on our research facility during the ISC. What do you think about it?

Steven Chu: You have very, very good people. For example, in ultrasound imaging I think you have some of the very best in the world. Yet the school is not as well-known because it’s very small. I would like to see more of your graduates go abroad for post-doctoral to broaden their skills and experiences. It would help if more companies realized how good your graduates are.

What do you think of the ongoing reconstruction plan at the school?

Steven Chu: The redesigned entrance will strengthen ties with the École Normale Supérieure. There is additional opportunity to enrich your environment by using some of the space given back to the city of Paris as incubator space for recently graduated ESPCI students, and for space that can provides an interface between the school, industry and entrepreneurial investors. Some companies already know how good the students are, but the rebuilding is an occasion to increase its connections with industry. The idea is not to let industry commercialize the program, but to let them know of the quality of your institution and how you train your students. It also gives the school a better understanding of the type of training that industry and investors value.

If you had one message for the students?

Steven Chu: Take full advantage of this special environment. You are lucky to have a very high student-to-faculty ratio, so don’t be shy to ask the faculty questions and get engaged in their research. Stay informed of how science could benefit humankind. Take full advantage of your fellow students as well. Students learn from each other, and your time at the ESPCI will be a special time in your life.

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