Scientists at Fermilab were told Tuesday by Secretary of Energy Rick Perry the particle physics research facility is one of the "jewels" of the United States.
"The things that you do right here in Fermi and the ability to change people's lives in a powerful way has never been greater than it is today," Perry said in a speech at an "all-hands" event in its headquarters in Wilson Hall.
It was his first visit to Fermilab since taking office last year.
In the afternoon, he was scheduled to visit Argonne National Laboratory near Darien. The Energy Department's Office of Science oversees the laboratories.
Perry toured Fermilab before speaking to employees.
"He has an incredible desire to learn. I've never heard so many questions," laboratory director Nigel Lockyer said. "He will be a great advocate for us."
He got them laughing with quips about being shot through with neutrinos that morning and how he studied veterinary medicine, until "organic chemistry changed my life." Poor grades in that were part of changing his college major to animal science. He entered politics, serving as a legislator and governor of Texas and running twice for the Republican nomination for president of the United States.
Perry said he sees himself as an advocate for the national laboratories, here and abroad, particularly when it comes to getting money and the best people for them.
The Batavia laboratory does pure science research. Researchers contemplate the nature of subatomic particles. Current experiments include explorations of dark matter and dark energy.
Perry said being able to "commercialize" what comes out of the lab's research is important to him. That is one of the ways he can sell the American people, government leaders, other nations and commercial entities on the idea of appropriately funding the nation's laboratories and experiments.
He noted, as an example, that the development of MRI medical scanning and proton beam cancer treatments came about because of work done at Fermilab. Both use technologies that were developed to study the nature of subatomic particles.
Democratic Congressman Bill Foster, a former Fermilab scientist, accompanied Perry.
"His true enthusiasm for the science we do here showed through," Foster said of Perry. Foster said he was "impressed with how he sees his mission as an advocate."
"I will do my best to be a good and a cogent storyteller of what happens in places like Fermilab," Perry said.