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U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu urged the need to pursue energy research in a spirit akin to that of the seminal AT&T Bell Laboratories in his address last month at MIT as part of the Karl Taylor Compton lecture series.

Chu began the talk by providing a bleak context, highlighting the rise in sea level, air temperature, and natural deforestation. Yet Chu did not appear defeated. “Is there a reason for hope? I think there is,” he said, as technological advances in the twentieth century have suggested. The invention of artificial fertilizers, for instance, drastically increased world-wide grain production despite the predictions of Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich, who asserted that hundreds of millions would die from hunger regardless of any crash programs.

Chu went on to assert that greenhouse gas emissions would reduce most dramatically due to energy efficiency and conservation. This would be motivated by government regulations, which have proved essential in technological advances. Refrigerator efficiency, for one, evolved largely due to regulations. “They’re cheaper, they use less energy and they got bigger,” he said. The same advancement driven by regulations could apply to buildings, which currently consume 40 percent of the total energy used in the United States.

The talk concluded with a call for more energy research, pursued with a fervor similar to that of the famed Bell Laboratories, which developed era-defining technologies such as the transistor, information theory, and the C programming language. Research would be led by the best practicing scientists and focus on results, driven by the cooperation among academia, the government, and industry.

During the Q&A session after the talk, a graduate student asked how the government would be prepared to absorb monetary loss from failed pursuits. Chu replied that President Barack Obama has proposed to invest several percentage points of the gross domestic product on science research. Science and technology will be a cornerstone, if not the cornerstone for how America is going to prosper in this century, Chu said.

Associate Provost Philip S. Khoury, also chair of the committee that selected the speaker, said Chu’s speech could be interpreted as an appeal to academia to increase its participation in eliminating fossil fuel dependency. Because much of the famed laboratories have dismantled, Chu may have suggested that universities, now considered the hotbeds for innovation, need to pick up the responsibility.

Chu went into office as the first Nobel laureate to do so, having shared the 1997 physics prize for his work on cooling and trapping atoms with laser light. He is also the first practicing scientist to be appointed as head of the Energy Department.

The talk, held on May 12, was part of the Institute’s most prestigious lectureship, established in memory of Karl Taylor Compton, MIT president from 1930 to 1948. Speakers come from a variety of disciplines, ranging from the arts to international affairs, and have included Niels Bohr, Linus Pauling, and Edward M. Kennedy. For lecture archives, visit http://compton.mit.edu/.

Chu delivered a Commencement address at Harvard University yesterday afternoon.