Perry to scientists: ‘You’re awesome’

Source: Debra Kahn, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, March 29, 2018

BERKELEY, Calif. — Energy Secretary Rick Perry emphasized his advocacy for federal scientists and their work on basic research in a speech at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) yesterday.

“I am as serious as I can be about how important what you do is,” Perry said to scientists on the second stop in his three-day tour of the West Coast’s national labs. “It is not lost on the people of this country, and the ones that maybe aren’t either paying attention or don’t know, I will spend my time as the secretary of Energy sharing with them the great story of the national labs of this country. You’re awesome.”

Perry’s pep talk came with heavy doses of self-deprecation. He said he’d learned that “atoms are really, really small” and that the extent of scientific ignorance is unknown.

“‘We don’t know what we don’t know, and we don’t know why we don’t know’ was a powerful statement for me,” he said, referring to a lesson he received from the director of Sandia National Laboratories. “It kind of went to the heart of why every day I get up in this new gig I’ve got.”

“Being the governor of Texas was the best job I’ve ever had, I’m not going to lie,” he said. “But the coolest job I’ve ever had is what I’m currently doing, and it’s because of the men and women who populate these national labs.”

Perry touted the LBNL’s work on cancer research and traumatic brain injuries and highlighted the federal government’s historical role in developing fossil fuel technology. He referenced Sandia National Laboratories’ work on horizontal drilling techniques with Texas oil entrepreneur and hydraulic fracturing pioneer George Mitchell.

“Because this country believes in pioneers, because this country believes in funding basic research, and because you have a secretary of Energy that believes that you take that technology that’s being developed in those early stages, and you support it to where it can be commercialized,” he said.

Perry also dismissed rumors that he is leaving DOE for the Department of Veterans Affairs, noting that the national labs contribute to veteran care by working on traumatic brain injuries. He left immediately after his speech and didn’t take questions from the media.

In response to a question from an employee about how the labs can continue to attract younger scientists, he invoked the specter of competition from other countries and said he would stick up for DOE in the budget process.

President Trump has proposed slashing DOE’s budget for fiscal 2019, including an 18 percent cut to LBNL, but the agency’s Office of Science, which funds the labs, ended up getting a 16 percent boost in the final omnibus package passed last week for fiscal 2018 (E&E Daily, March 23).

“When I talk to our friends in the Congress or the OMB and we’re struggling about budgeting issues, listen — I was an appropriator … I was the governor of Texas for 14 years. I kind of understand this push and pull of government, but I also understand about how to manage big things and about how to be competitive, because we compete,” Perry said. “I don’t think you would be at a national lab if you didn’t have that competitive gene implanted in you. We’re in a big competition. We’re in a competition against some really capable individuals and countries.”

Before his talk, Perry toured the lab’s Advanced Light Source, its National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center and its Molecular Foundry, which is used for nanoscale research. He vowed to continue advocating for lab employees.

Perry received good reviews from laboratory staff after his talk.

“The secretary did outline what his strengths are,” said Branden Brough, deputy director of the Molecular Foundry. “He is not going to pretend to be a physicist by any means, but he is someone who enables, who gets out of our way and allows us to do the things that we are all trained to do.”

“Ernie Moniz and Steve Chu are geekier by a factor of 10, but the message is the same,” said Caroline Ajo-Franklin, a biophysicist who studies the nanoscale interface between living microbes and inorganic materials.

“They were really good at science, and you could make an argument that maybe they were not as effective in bureaucracy, and this is a very bureaucratic job,” Brough said of Perry’s predecessors under President Obama. He noted that the Molecular Foundry received a 6.5 percent budget increase for fiscal 2018, as part of a group of five nanoscale research centers. “I think we’re seeing continued support.”