DOE Chief Chu: Openness in Research Is Crucial for Greentech

All hail the open-source scientist. Open collaboration in energy innovation will be a key part of fighting climate change, said Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu to an audience at the Green Solutions conference in Cancun, Mexico, a side event to the U.N.’s climate negotiations going on this week. While Chu noted that protecting intellectual property is very important for incentivizing the development of greentech, open collaboration between scientists often leads to better research that can be produced more quickly.

Beyond the greater good, scientists who are more open with their research and willing to collaborate with their peers are generally more successful in their careers, and usually don’t look at a single breakthrough as the last one they are going to make, pointed out Chu. For example, he and two other scientists collectively won the Nobel Prize in the late 90s, and Chu said “We were competitors, but we shared notes and tried to collaborate on aspects of research together. We were friends before the Nobel Prize and we are friends afterwards,” said Chu.

How open researchers should be with greentech breakthroughs is a subject of much debate, both at the U.N. climate negotiations in Cancun, and also in the ongoing discussions about how to work with China’s greentech industries. The climate negotiations in 2009 in Copenhagen resulted in an agreement to create a technology mechanism that would facilitate tech transfer from developed nations to developing nations, but there’s still remains a lot of work to do about where IP fits into that group.

Openness plays into greentech relations with China because some Western companies are leery of handing over IP to Chinese firms for fear that they’ll be taking one for the team, so to speak. That’s one reason why Chu helped put together a new U.S.-China Clean Energy Research Center starting with a total of $15 million in funding (split equally) from the two governments. Made up by teams of scientists and engineers from the U.S. and China,” the research center is meant to create “a clearinghouse to help researchers in each country.”

The debate about how open to be is one that has fundamentally shaped information technology, with some tech and Internet groups focusing on releasing software source code in the public domain, like Google (s GOOG), while other companies like Apple (s APPL) are famously closed (but successful).

Chu, for all of his successes, joked during the Q&A session that though he had 10 patents, he hadn’t taken advantage of his patents in the business world, and said that throughout his career he rarely took Board seats at companies that were using his patents to pursue commercial technology. “My parents did something wrong,” Chu joked. But still, the line between financially leveraging IP and working more collaboratively is a delicate one, and will be a fundamental questions for energy innovators.

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Image courtesy of Center For American Progress Action Fund.