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Physicist nominated as Energy secretary. Are there enough scientists in Washington?

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Carolyn Kaster/AP/File

(Read caption) MIT physics professor Ernest Moniz smiles as he stands on stage in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Monday, where President Obama announced he would nominate Mr. Moniz for Energy secretary.

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By naming Ernest Moniz as his next Energy secretary, President Obama is demonstrating his desire for scientific experience in a post typically occupied by business leaders or former politicians.

Is he right? Does Washington need more scientists?

Mr. Moniz's résumé – he's a nuclear physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) – is rare in a town dominated by lawyers and businesspeople. The 112th Congress, for example, counts among its ranks one physicist, one chemist, six engineers, and one microbiologist, all of whom are in the House of Representatives. That's less than 2 percent of the legislative body, which grapples with difficult energy issues (not to mention other areas of science) and is tasked with funding some of the most advanced research in the world. Some argue that more scientists are needed in the nation's capital, particularly as the nation grapples with complex policy questions surrounding climate change. 

"Don't leave out public policy," former Energy secretary Bill Richardson urged engineers, chemists and physicists attending an energy conference Saturday at Moniz's employer, MIT. "Don't leave out running for office."

It's unwelcome advice for some in the scientific community who see political involvement as frivolous or antithetical to their role as neutral, nonpartisan observers of facts.

When researchers enter the political arena, “the scientific establishment holds that against a scientist to some extent,” US Rep. Rush Holt (D) of New Jersey told the The New York Times in 2011. Mr. Holt earned a degree in physics from Carleton College and served as an assistant director at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory before running for office. 

The idea of a scientist leading the Department of Energy is also a little suspect in Washington these days, given that Moniz would replace Steven Chu, a Nobel physicist. While heading the Energy Department, Mr. Chu earned the praise of many in the scientific community for championing renewables and investing Recovery Act funds into energy projects. But he lacked experience in Washington.

Environmentalists criticized Chu for failing to lead the highly-politicized charge on a comprehensive climate bill. Conservatives attacked him for directing federal funds to Solyndra and other "green" energy companies that ultimately failed.

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In Moniz's favor, he does have prior Washington experience. During the Clinton administration, he served as under secretary of the Department of Energy and associate director for science in the Office of Science and Technology Policy. Mr. Obama named him to his Science and Technology Advisory Council.

“He brings expertise, experience in a prior administration and real science credibility,” Ian Bowles, former Massachusetts secretary of energy and environmental affairs and now a managing director of venture firm WindSail Capital, told The Washington Post. “You can argue about whether you want to have a scientist, but within that food group he’s an excellent choice.”  

In Monday's press conference, the president emphasized Moniz's dual-backgrounds, calling him a "brilliant scientist" who “knows his way around the Department of Energy."

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