I’m not a fan of Bill Nye. I certainly endorse his science advocacy and education efforts, but he’s of my sons’ generation, not mine, and his lack of deep academic credentials leaves him open to the kind of challenge Sarah Palin recently made. (I’m not saying Bill Nye isn’t a scientist, as Palin did. I’m saying there are other science spokespeople with stronger resumes and greater accomplishments.) So I didn’t make a big deal out of Nye lecturing at Drake University April 14.
But I am excited about the pending visit of a real science superstar: U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz. He’s coming to Ames on Friday, May 6 to speak at the dedication of the Ames Laboratory’s Sensitive Instrument Facility. (I wrote about the SIF and the high-tech tools it houses earlier this year.) He’ll stay overnight and deliver the undergraduate commencement address at 1:30 p.m. in Hilton Coliseum on Saturday, May 7.
It’s exciting because, as I’ll explain, Moniz is probably the most consequential energy secretary in history – a big influence on world peace and climate stability.
It’s not unusual for an energy secretary to visit the Ames Laboratory, a DOE facility ISU operates on contract. Moniz’s predecessor, Steven Chu, visited in 2013, getting out of Washington during the State of the Union address as the designated survivor.
But Moniz (pronounced moNEEZ) is in a different class. He’s perhaps been the most visible energy secretary ever, playing a key part in not only negotiating the Iran nuclear treaty but also explaining and selling it to members of Congress and the public. He’s had a similar role in negotiations for the Paris Agreement on climate change, signed just last Friday – on Earth Day.
For these accomplishments, I will not be shocked if Moniz, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and their Iranian counterparts win a Nobel Peace Prize.
Moniz’s fame increased when he went on tour to tout the Iran agreement. He appeared on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert and the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Esquire interviewed Moniz and placed the article at the front of the magazine, in a spot usually reserved for profiles of movie stars and comedians.
This is a turnaround from Chu’s tenure. Although he’s a Nobel Prize winner, Chu was associated with the failure (and supposed insider deal) of solar panel-maker Solyndra after it received millions in government loans. (What gets lost in the Solyndra shouting is how many more DOE investments actually made money for DOE and the taxpayers.) He never connected with Congress or the public.
When Moniz took over in 2013, he told aides, “We’re not going to play defense. We’re going to play offense,” as the Boston Globe reported. That attitude has been reflected in the department’s many accomplishments since, from the international agreements to the general acceptance of renewable energy as beneficial for the nation and the world.
I think it’s a secret to Moniz’s success. He’s known for explaining science and its implications to officials, like senators and representatives, without condescending or preaching. He has a reputation as a likeable, approachable scientist. He still plays soccer.
It helps that he looks and seems like your ex-hippie uncle – more warm and accessible than the professorial Chu.
Whatever it is, however, Moniz how exemplifies science in service to society. He advocates for rational decision-making and policy based on the facts and the best research. It’s an example every official – elected or not – would be wise to follow.