For a brilliant scientist and veteran policymaker who is on the way to joining the line of presidential succession, Ernest Moniz isn't one to take himself too seriously.
In the days immediately following his appearance alongside President Obama in the East Room to accept the nomination to become the next secretary of Energy, what grabbed the public's attention was not his impressive resume but the shock of white hair that invited comparisons to the Quaker Oats mascot and America's founding fathers, among others.
Dropping by a post-announcement meeting of the President's Council of Advisers on Science and Technology, on which he's served since 2009, Moniz took his newfound Internet celebrity in stride.
"He said, 'I don't mind looking like George Washington,'" recalled Shirley Ann Jackson, president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and a fellow PCAST member.
Jackson, who's known Moniz for nearly 40 years, said the quip illustrates Moniz's easygoing, self-deprecating nature and quick wit -- qualities she and other colleagues say will serve him well when he takes the helm at the Department of Energy.
Aside from his daring "do," the qualities most evident in Moniz's background are a largely unmatched ability to mesh scientific expertise with a know-how of the political realities that guide policymaking in Washington.
"I think Ernie will be the best-prepared secretary of Energy we've ever had," said T.J. Glauthier, who was deputy secretary and chief operating officer at DOE at the same time Moniz was undersecretary during the Clinton administration.
Outgoing Energy Secretary Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize winner, was the most accomplished scientist to hold the job, but observers say he struggled to navigate DOE bureaucracy and withstand tough grilling from a hostile Congress. Moniz hasn't won a Nobel, but his academic work has won plenty of plaudits over the years, and he already knows how to navigate bureaucracy and politics in the capital after serving in the Clinton administration.
"There are very few scientists who are honestly able to bridge the science-policy gap and serve well in that arena," said Rosina Bierbaum, who worked across the hall from Moniz in the Clinton White House. "My interpretation of that is it's very hard for a scientist coming into the government to understand that science is not going to be the loudest voice in the political milieu."
Bierbaum, now a professor at the University of Michigan and a fellow PCAST member, said Moniz offers a rare ability to tackle scientific challenges like climate change through the constraints inherent in the policymaking process.
"He is a very kind and diplomatic person by nature, but he doesn't suffer fools lightly," she said.
Moniz's work in government started in 1995, when he was the associate director for science in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. He joined DOE in 1997, where he served as undersecretary through the end of the Clinton administration. Prior to entering government, Moniz served on the faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology beginning in 1973, and he returned to the university after leaving DOE in 2001.
Moniz, 69, currently directs the MIT Energy Initiative, which he helped launch in 2006 to coordinate energy-related research across the university, and he has led reports on the future of coal, nuclear and natural gas, among other areas. Moniz is currently leading a team developing a report on the future of solar energy, but that work will not be complete by the time he joins DOE, assuming he is confirmed by the Senate as he is widely expected to be.
While Moniz's embrace of natural gas and nuclear has raised some concern among environmentalists who believe the government's focus should be on promoting renewable energy and efficiency, colleagues say the nominee's approach to climate change has been one imbued by pragmatism.
The approach is one that recognizes constraints of the existing energy market while striving for the steep reductions in greenhouse gas emissions that scientists say are necessary to prevent catastrophic global warming.
"He's a realist who's trying to change the system," said Phil Sharp, president of the think tank Resources for the Future who served with Moniz on the president's Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future and has collaborated on several MIT research efforts.
"There's a difference between somebody who just accepts the status quo and says they're a realist and this is the way life is, and somebody who says, 'No, excuse me. We have a serious problem we have to deal with,'" Sharp added.
'Here are the facts'
Moniz's outlook also happens to mesh well with the president who nominated him.
"He is coming into an administration whose basic energy policy is 'all of the above,'" said Dan Reicher, a former DOE official who served as a surrogate for Obama's re-election campaign last year. "I think it may well have played very significantly into the president's interest in Ernie that his work in fact has been very much in line with the administration's all-of-the-above policy."
A carbon-free future is possible, but getting there requires a recognition of the constraints inherent in trying to overhaul the energy system by phasing out incumbent sources that for decades have dominated how Americans fuel their cars and light and heat their homes.
"In so many ways Ernie has always injected a dose of reality that isn't partisan in any way but simply says, 'Here are the facts,'" said Valdimir Bulovic, a fellow MIT professor who works to develop nano-scale solar cells and considers Moniz a mentor.
The recognition of a continued role for natural gas and nuclear should not discount the massive amount of work Moniz and the MIT Energy Initiative have directed toward efficiency and renewable energy, defenders say.
The initiative has funded more than 800 projects, two-thirds of which are in the areas of renewable energy and carbon management, with solar as the largest single program area, said Robert Armstrong, deputy director of the program. The animus behind the entire endeavor assumes a future in which the United States and the rest of the world "get our act together" and put a price on carbon emissions -- "when that happens, how can we respond," he added.
And the program has been able to attract support from oil companies and others that are thriving in a world without carbon constraints but recognize that the free ride will not last forever.
"Every company we work with sees that in their own way they need to be moving the energy system forward to a place where we emit less CO2 for the energy we use," Armstrong said.
A few themes crop up often in Moniz's public speeches:
- Transforming the energy system in a short time is incredibly hard.
- Transportation and buildings are the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions and hence should be the focus of innovation.
- Essentially all traditional coal-fired power plants will have to be retired to meet climate goals.
- The United States does not spend nearly enough on energy research and development.
- Efforts to innovate should be designed to lower the costs of carbon-free energy sources to the point where they can compete with traditional fuels.
"We've got to figure out how to innovate and implement innovation within this set of constraints," Moniz said at a 2011 conference hosted by DOE's Energy Information Administration, "and not just wish that they'd somehow magically go away."
Like what you see?
We thought you might.
Start a free trial now.