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Briefing Stresses the Importance of Basic Research in Meeting Future Energy Needs

Richard M. Jones
Number 94 - September 26, 2008  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

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A press briefing last week in Washington stressed the important role that basic research will play in meeting the nation's future energy needs. The briefing was sponsored by The Science Coalition and the Task Force on the Future of American Innovation, and featured four academic, business, and research speakers.

A petition was also released at this briefing by the Energy Sciences Coalition calling on the next president to support higher funding basic energy research.

The following are selections from the prepared remarks of each speaker:

MIT PRESIDENT SUSAN HOCKFIELD:

"In any scientific or technical field, innovative solutions that reach the marketplace represent the flowering of research seeds planted years or even decades before. In the last quarter century, America has reaped the rewards of two innovation revolutions, in information technology and biotechnology. These revolutions launched entirely new industries, created millions of jobs, vastly improved our overall productivity and produced virtually all the technologies that account for our modern quality of life.

"Where did those revolutions spring from? From the seeds of basic, federally funded research. Today, America badly needs an energy revolution, and funding basic research will once again pave the path to the goal. . . . "

"We all know our tangled, triple knot of difficult problems: first, a shaky economy, battered by many forces including volatile energy prices; second, a geopolitical situation weighed down by issues of energy consumption and security; and third, mounting evidence of global climate change.

"Each knot is daunting on its own, and the three are profoundly tied together. Fortunately, we have the power to loosen all those knots at once with a dramatic new level of federal investment in energy R&D. If one advance could transform America’s technologies, ready to power our cars, our buildings and our industries, at scale, while creating jobs and protecting the planet.

"If we want to own those future technologies, there is only one path: research. Yet in the last several decades, federal funding for energy research has dwindled to the point of irrelevance. In 1980, 10%of federal research dollars went to energy. Today, when we really need energy answers, it is an embarrassing 2%.

"Research investment by US energy companies has mirrored the drop in federally funded research. In 2004, the energy industry invested less than one quarter of one percent of revenues in R&D. This level is wildly out of step with any industry that depends on innovation. Pharmaceutical companies invest 18% of their revenues in R&D. Semiconductor firms invest 16%. Even the auto industry invests 3.3%. With current levels of federal and industry investment, we cannot expect an energy revolution. Moreover, while we welcome the recent surge in venture funding for 'green' technologies, the fact is that venture money flows not to revolutionary research, but to near-market-ready ideas, the very last phase of the 'D' in R&D.

"While industry must support development and commercialization, only government can prime the pump of research.

"In these uncertain times, why should taxpayers support increased investment in basic research? Because the same kind of research investment has paid off so spectacularly before. Let me give just two examples: Over the past 30 years, federal research funding allowed the National Institutes of Health to invest $4 per American per year on cardiac research. That investment has cut deaths from strokes and heart attacks by 63 percent. In those same decades, federal research funding also turned AIDS from a death sentence into a treatable chronic disease, with tremendous savings in health care costs and human suffering, and increased economic productivity from people remaining in the work force.

"Now imagine the same payoff measured in electric cars, safe nuclear technology or a smart new grid. The potential here, from the economy to global security to the climate, is boundless.

"Yet we are not the only ones who are in this game. If we fail to make major strategic investments in energy research now, we will swiftly forfeit the advantage to others, from China and India to Germany and Japan. Other countries have the money and motivation, and they are chasing the technology as fast as they can. We must make sure that in the energy technology markets of the future, we have the power to invent, produce and sell, not the obligation to buy.

"How much should we invest in energy R&D? Let’s start with how much the federal government spends today. The total depends on which programs one counts, but recognized authorities put the number for 2006 at between $2.4 and 3.4 billion. For comparison, that is less than half of what our largest pharmaceutical company alone spends on R&D every year. In today’s dollars, it is about two percent of the total price of the Apollo program.

"A range of experts, including the business-led Council on Competitiveness in a statement last week, recommends that federal energy research must climb to three or even ten times the current level.

"In my view, the nation needs to increase energy R&D sharply, moving promptly to triple the current level, and then increasing further as the Department of Energy builds its capacity to translate basic research to the marketplace. To establish firm funding guidelines, industry, government and universities must come together to create a detailed energy R&D roadmap. Speaking for MIT, and I suspect for my fellow panelists, we would be honored to help in such a strategic plan."

STEVEN CHU, DIRECTOR OF THE LAWRENCE BERKELEY NATIONAL LABORATORY:

"Climate scientists have come along way towards understanding what could potentially happen, but skeptics do not believe there is a real chance of catastrophic climate change. The most recent observations tell us the risk is very real. The Stern Review Report states:

"'Under a BAU [Business as Usual] scenario, the stock of greenhouse gases could more than treble by the end of the century, giving at least a 50% risk of exceeding 5 degree C global average temperature change during the following decades. This would take humans into unknown territory … we are now only around 5 degree C warmer than in the last ice age.'

"A world average temperature change of 5 degrees does not sound like much, but a 5 degree warmer world will be a very different world. In the last ice age, roughly one third of the United States was covered year-round in a glacier. In this rapidly changing world, “adaptation” of a substantial fraction of the inhabitants of the Earth is not possible.

"How do we balance dealing with today’s 'clear and present' problems from the problems that we will bequeath to our children and grand children? Is a 50% probability of disastrous social, economic and political risks a high enough threshold to act with urgency?

"Suppose you had a small electrical fire and, as a precaution, you asked a structural engineer to look at your home’s wiring. She reports that the wiring is 'shot' and there is a 50% chance that your house would burn down in the next few years unless you replace all the wiring. The job will cost $20,000.

"$20,000 is a lot of money, so you get an independent assessment. The next engineer agrees with the first warning. You can either continue to shop for additional evaluations until you find the one engineer in 1,000 that is willing to give you the answer you want, 'Your family is not in danger'… or you can change the wiring. It is unlikely that you will respond by only making sure your fire insurance payments are up to date.

"Our country needs to act quickly with fiscal and regulatory policies to insure widespread deployment of effective technologies that maximize energy efficiency and minimize carbon emission. . . . "

"I believe that aggressive support of energy science and technology, coupled with incentives that accelerate the development and deployment of innovative solutions, can transform the entire landscape of energy demand and supply. It is especially important that we invest in those ideas that industry has not yet been willing to explore."

UMA CHOWDHRY, SENIOR VICE PRESIDENT AND CHIEF S&T OFFICER FOR DUPONT:

"Among the critical steps the next president must take is to commit to increasing investment in research and development and market commercialization to deliver secure and sustainable energy.

"We are at a critical time in our history. We are facing a new reality. There are several trends coming together simultaneously that necessitate that we act now to help address our energy future: Significant increase in raw materials (Anything we take from the ground.) This is especially acute in energy consumption. Global population growth and a rising middle class. Climate change. Consumer demand for renewably-sourced solutions

"Science will play an essential role in developing and implementing solutions.

"DuPont is a science company, but no one entity can fully solve these challenges alone. It will take the concerted effort of companies, academia, NGOS and governments to address a secure and sustainable energy future.

"Let me share two examples with you where we partnered with academia and the US government on research to address energy solutions. The government funding made all the difference in our decision to pursue these projects. Without the shared partnership, it would have been difficult for us to assume the risk associated with these projects."

After discussing photovoltaics and cellulosic ethanol, Chowdhry concluded:

"One reason we have made significant progress towards commercialization of cellulosic fuels and more efficient solar cells is because, in addition to our technical expertise, we have leveraged science that the government has funded over the years at universities, national labs and startup companies.

"There is great promise for a growing market in alternative energy. But it will take an unprecedented partnership between companies, governments, universities and others to make that promise a reality.

"We urge the U.S. government to continue to join us in our search for sustainable solutions by creating a long-term energy strategy and partnering with others by funding basic research.


"A sustained commitment to basic science is fundamental to make the advances necessary for our country to maintain its innovation ability and retain its competitiveness."

DAVID BELL, PRESIDENT, CEO AND DIRECTOR OF INTERSIL CORPORATION:

"From the cell phone in your pocket to the data centers that support the Internet; from the hybrid vehicles plying our highways to solar panels increasingly dotting our neighborhoods; from the refrigerator in your kitchen to the motor controls running our nation’s largest manufacturing facilities – today, chips are allowing us to do more with less.

"Chip technology and the energy solutions they enable did not occur in a vacuum or overnight. They are the result of long-term basic research. Basic research led to development of the transistor and subsequently the integrated circuit. Ongoing basic research will yield tomorrow’s solutions.

"The technological innovations of the past half-century have created whole new industries with millions of high paying jobs -- 226,000 in my industry alone. Technology has boosted American productivity, wages, and the quality of our lives. Sometimes overlooked, however, are the enormous strides that have been made in delivering these capabilities in ever-more energy efficient and environmentally friendly ways. Almost always overlooked is the importance of the basic research that brought forth these opportunities.

"A study by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy found that for every extra kilowatt-hour of electricity that is demanded by information and communications technology, the U.S. economy increased its overall energy savings by a factor of about 10 on average. These savings are a result of the phenomenal increases in semiconductors, computers, and telecommunications equipment are widely adopted, creating efficiencies throughout the economy. . . . "

"Basic research at our nation’s labs and universities fueled these advances. Federal investment in basic research enabled these initiatives.

"We still have the ideas, the labs, and the universities. We also have leaders on both sides of aisle, throughout industry, government, and academia, who have reached the consensus that basic research is important and that our nation must focus on our energy challenges.

"The first step Congress must take is to fully fund the America COMPETES legislation and do so before they go home. The increased federal funding for basic research that this legislation calls for at NIST, NSF, and the Office of Science at the Department of Energy will go along way in helping us solve our energy challenges, while providing new solutions."

The full text of the four statements and a webcast of the briefing can be accessed here.

Richard M. Jones
Media and Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics
rjones@aip.org
301-209-3095