News Focus

Bill Richardson

Science  04 Jan 2008:
Vol. 319, Issue 5859, pp. 28b-29b
DOI: 10.1126/science.319.5859.28b

As New Mexico's New Governor, Bill Richardson enlisted experts from in-state Los Alamos National Laboratory to help him with technical issues. Barely a year later, however, they had been fired, Donald Trump-style. Richardson felt that the Department of Energy's (DOE's) weapons lab was dragging its feet on cleaning up long-standing environmental problems, and when a top lab official suggested one day that budget cuts might force the lab to recall its environmental adviser, it was the last straw. “We weren't going to be blackmailed,” recalls Ned Farquhar, a former staffer now serving as senior adviser to the campaign on energy and climate.

A year later, a new set of advisers from Los Alamos was in place, and Richardson had reached a deal with the lab on a cleanup schedule. “It was pretty rigorous. I don't think the state budged very much,” notes physicist Dennis Erickson, on detail as science adviser, who remembers being given 24 hours to clean out his desk. Despite having a year's work go down the drain, Erickson doesn't disagree with what the governor did. “I have nothing but good feelings toward him,” says Erickson, now retired and a contributor to Richardson's presidential campaign.

Supporters say the incident demonstrates that the 60-year-old Hispanic politician is a principled manager, a tough negotiator, and someone who doesn't see a conflict between national security and the environment. But some wonder if it is also the portrait of someone who acts precipitously, punishing critics and putting principles above results.


Reelected easily in 2006, Richardson has promised voters that he will shake up the Washington establishment. But he's hardly a fresh face. After earning a bachelor's and a master's degree (in public policy) from Tufts University, Richardson spent nearly 30 years working for the federal government, first as a Democratic staffer, then as a seven-term congressman, and finally, as U.N. ambassador and energy secretary in the second Clinton Administration.

The most striking part of his résumé is his extensive, hands-on negotiations with regimes in North Korea, Iraq, and Sudan for the release of U.S. prisoners and other human-rights issues. Richardson has also taken a very aggressive stance on climate change, including calls for a 90% reduction in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 through a cap-and-trade system, a 50% cut in oil consumption by 2020, greater reliance on renewable energy sources by utility companies, and federal subsidies to promote plug-in hybrid cars. “There is no free market when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions,” says Farquhar. “We need rules and boundaries.”

To help meet those goals, Richardson has proposed a $10 billion to $15 billion trust fund to support new energy technologies, replenished by the fruits of successful investments. But Farquhar says it's not a honey pot for academic researchers, as the fund would pursue a more product-oriented approach than the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy created last summer. Farquhar says Richardson also plans to “reconfigure” DOE to deal with the twin challenges of energy independence and global warming, possibly shifting DOE's ethanol program to the agriculture department and giving the Environmental Protection Agency a bigger role in climate change.

The lack of specifics is characteristic of someone who, in the words of one former aide, “has more ideas than time to implement them.” That's equally true for his education platform. His response to the president's signature No Child Left Behind program to improve elementary and secondary schools is characteristically blunt: “Scrap it.” But when asked what would replace the annual testing regimen and penalties for schools that don't make the grade, his answer is a call for a national summit to work out the details. His promise to “hire 100,000 new science and math teachers [and] create 250 math, science, and innovation academies” likewise ignores the fact that state and local authorities, not the federal government, hire teachers and run schools.

Despite repeated campaign statements about the importance of innovation, Richardson isn't above embracing his own scientific illiteracy as a way to identify with the average voter. In his new book on energy, Leading by Example, Richardson asserts that more people would use energy-saving technologies, including light-emitting diodes, if they were given simpler names. “Does anyone on Earth know what a diode is?” he writes. “Probably someone at the two national labs in New Mexico, but not me! And probably not you.”

Navigate This Article