Department of Energy Undersecretary for Science Franklin Orr left Capitol Hill yesterday with unusual instructions from the top Democrat on the House Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee — to go brainstorm ways of putting his boss on TV.
Drawing inspiration from Disney’s 2003 hit "Finding Nemo," Rep. Marcy Kaptur suggested Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz could star in science-themed children’s programming.
Call it "Finding Ernie," the Ohio congresswoman said.
"He would like be inside the internal combustion engine that I saw inside one of your labs in California, trying to figure out how propulsion really works," Kaptur said during a hearing on the science office’s budget. "That registers with my part of the country where, you know, they have drag strips and cars are made and all."
This week, Moniz and other DOE leaders flocked to the Hill for a series of hearings on the administration’s $32.5 billion fiscal 2017 spending request for the department.
Testimony has revealed that making science interesting to the next generation may be one of the department’s greatest long-term challenges.
With that in mind, Kaptur challenged DOE staff to consider options for public broadcasting, as "images of Dr. Moniz being part of the programming" danced in her head.
"We then find him inside of algae in Lake Erie, and maybe going down with a snorkel, and those things you put on your feet … flippers, so he’s down there," Kaptur said. "Then I think about the laser beam projects that I’ve seen and — can you imagine — up on a wind turbine up there at [National Renewable Energy Laboratory]."
Looking at the $5.6 billion request from the science office, Kaptur proposed bringing the 17 national laboratories into the project: "Every year each of them would have to come up with two ideas that could be put to film."
An amused Orr agreed DOE did need to sharpen its storytelling skills. "I can’t resist saying that I love the idea of all of us sitting around thinking up things for the secretary to do," he joked.
Kaptur replied, "Well, we can cast people in his like. But I say you have a gold mine."
Kaptur also envisioned a role for Orr. She thinks "Mr. Wizard," a character who motivated the establishment of thousands of science clubs during the 1950s, is due for a reboot.
"I was sort of auditioning you, Dr. Orr, and you have a wonderful voice, and you look a little bit like Mr. Wizard," Kaptur said.
Subcommittee Chairman Mike Simpson hopped into the discussion. The Idaho Republican expressed his love of the science program "Cosmos," a guided tour through the universe hosted by scientist Carl Sagan in 1980 and Neil deGrasse Tyson in 2014, sharing that he owns DVDs of the series. Simpson said the program took complex subjects "down to an almost understandable level."
Kaptur concluded the hearing by instructing Orr to take the lawmakers’ message back to the department’s communications department.
"We’ve got to do something to break through the clutter," she said. "You have this vast, indecipherable world — it’s like a planetary system to its own — but it has such unmet potential to teach kids."
"I’m already formulating what I’m going to say at the morning briefing about that suggestion," he said, as the hearing adjourned.