U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry made his final stop on his tour of national laboratories in the Bay Area at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory on Mar. 28, when he delivered a motivational speech to its employees. Perry praised their cutting-edge scientific research and expressed support for finding economically feasible solutions to energy challenges.
SLAC, which specializes in particle physics research, is located in Menlo Park and is operated by Stanford under the direction of the Department of Energy (DOE).
Employees and visiting scientists gathered to hear Perry’s remarks in Panofsky Auditorium. Among the attendees were Provost Persis Drell and former SLAC director, physical sciences professor emeritus and Nobel Prize winner Burton Richter.
Perry emphasized his excitement about overseeing laboratories at the forefront of science. He said that the scientists working at the laboratories inspire him to get up in the morning.
“You all are involved in day-to-day operations that literally have the potential to change the world,” Perry said. “Not everybody can say that.”
Perry admitted that while he likes his current job, he preferred serving as governor of Texas, a position he held for 14 years prior to becoming energy secretary. While energy secretary isn’t the “best job” he has ever had, he said it is “the coolest” because of the people he works with.
In particular, he said he is impressed by the young scientists who have chosen a career at SLAC over neighboring private sector technology firms.
“Within a 30-mile radius of this particular place, there are some pretty cool companies to work for and you could be making a hell of a lot of more money,” Perry said.
As energy secretary, a role he has held since 2017, Perry manages 17 national laboratories, including SLAC. He has spent the week visiting the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Sandia National Laboratories and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
He added that that his tour of the national laboratories has clarified to him the importance of supercomputers, and said that they are one of several inventions the United States must be a leader in developing.
“We are competing with some countries that are really good at what they do,” Perry stated. “We better get it right and we need to be first.”
During his tour of SLAC prior to the talk, Perry visited its Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS), a laser that produces the world’s brightest X-ray pulses, along with its LCLS-II construction site. The new site currently in development will be home to a more powerful X-ray laser that produces brighter and faster pulses, giving scientists unprecedented insight into the atomic world.
In his remarks, Perry said that he heard a lot of criticism about the LCLS facilities and government spending on them during his time as governor.
“There were a lot of people who said, ‘You are wasting your money … and more importantly, you’re wasting our tax money,’” he said.
Consequently, Perry told the audience that he visited the national laboratories to educate himself on the work that they do, so that he can communicate their value to policymakers in Washington.
“As I talk to OMB [Office of Management and Budget] or as I talk to committees in Congress, I can explain to them in a layman’s way – there ain’t a lot of physics majors in Congress – here’s why this funding is important,” he said.
During the talk, Director of SLAC Chi-Chang Kao asked Perry two questions that were sourced from SLAC employees before the event.
Asked whether investing in renewable energy was essential to America’s long-term energy security, Perry suggested that the U.S. should invest in renewable energy resources alongside clean-burning fossil fuels.
“You can have economic growth and you can take care of your environment, but it’s got to be science that comes up with a cleaner way to burn these fuels,” he said.
According to Perry, obtaining energy from both renewable and non-renewable sources will help America stay economically competitive.
“Wish and hope all we might we could just go to completely renewables, but the world is going to burn fossil fuels,” he said.
The second question concerned what impact reducing environmental regulations might have on consumers and the environment. Perry admitted that it was “a really hard question to answer,” but favored balancing the interests of both parties.
“A regulation might sound good but the unintended consequences of that may cost you money,” he concluded. “We’ve got to take care of our environment – whether it’s our economic environment [or] whether it’s the environment we breathe.”
In an interview with The Daily following Perry’s talk, Drell said that she thought Perry did an “outstanding job” communicating his admiration for the people working at the national laboratories.
“What Secretary Perry has done, so far, is deliver a 2018 budget for science that’s the best budget we’ve seen in a long, long time and that’s great,” Drell said.
Director of Environmental Safety and Health and Chief Safety Officer at SLAC Carole Fried said that she appreciated that Perry acknowledged the scientific perspective in his remarks, though understood that he had to weigh the scientific benefits against the economic costs.
“The Republican administration has a reputation for not necessarily supporting some of our mission, so it was nice to hear that Secretary Perry does support the further development of science.”
However, Matthew Solt, a research assistant at SLAC who also attended the talk, expressed his concern with Perry leading the energy department, as he believes Perry lacks knowledge of fundamental science.
“He seemed very passionate about what we do, but lacking in scientific knowledge,” Solt said. “I think it’s possible he didn’t understand the questions [posed by Kao], he didn’t know the answer to the questions or he didn’t want to ask the questions directly.”
In July 2017, Perry awarded Stanford a five-year, $1.73 billon new contract to manage and operate SLAC on behalf of the DOE. This contract represents a 1 percent increase from the prior year. This number stands in stark comparison to the 2016-17 budget, which was up 22 percent from 2015-2016, and the 2015-16 budget, which was 13.5 percent higher than that of the year preceding it.
Contact Yasmin Samrai at ysamrai ‘at’ stanford.edu.