Tuesday, July 13, 2010

How Much Has Changed for Science under Obama?

President Obama has disappointed many of his supporters who focus on foreign policy or the economy by continuing many of the practices of the Bush administration with which he had promised to break.  Science policy has seemed like an obvious exception, in which the Obama administration, unlike its predecessor, both respects science and is willing to pay for it.  For example, in a keynote address to the European Research Council last year, AAAS president Alan Leshner claimed that American science "is back," and that the US will again be a reliable research partner for the rest of the world.

But there have been warning signs as well, including mixed signals on renewable energy research (as in boosting nuclear and offshore drilling at the same time).  In the past several days, two stories have claimed that scientific data and argument remain at the mercy of politics and message control.  A piece at the Huffington Post notes that the new rules to promote "scientific integrity throughout the executive branch" are a year late, and that a George Washington University survey found that "most government scientists interviewed did not view conditions at their agencies as having improved noticeably since the change in administration." 

On Saturday, the Los Angeles Times ran a long article called "Scientists Expected the Obama Administration to be Friendler."  It claimed that many "Scientists charge that the Obama administration is not doing enough to reverse a culture that they contend allowed officials to interfere with their work and limit their ability to speak out," and offered a number of examples.

The conflict between the open circulation of data and message control has been on parade for weeks in the BP gulf oil disaster.  UC Santa Barbara scientist Ira Leifer, a member of the government's Flow Rate Technical Group, has reported on the difficulty his group has had getting access from BP to reliable data on oil flow, and on the contrast between BP's repeatedly inaccurate claims and their own findings. 

Open access is crucial for both the assessment of social impacts and the advancement of research itself.  Since the Obama administration has suffered enormous damage from its association with the BP spill, it should step up with rules protecting scientific integrity and enforce a much higher standard for access than we have seen in recent years.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Moonshot Sentiments

Most people have thought I am a little nuts for wanting a moonshot on renewable energy research and development in the U.S. Nuts or not, the idea is for a flood of money on the scale created by John F. Kennedy's ten-year goal of a moon landing by the end of the 1960s. The current version could be an order-of-magnitude increase over a 2-3 year period for the full range of renewable energy research -- from say $300 million for photovoltaics in the current year, according to our forthcoming report, to $3 billion by 2013. By comparison, the full cost of the Apollo mission was recently estimated to be $170 billion (in 2005 dollars), or about $10-15 billion per year - around 50 times greater than photovoltaic research today.

The moonshot concept means much more money, and also more than money. It means infrastructural development, government procurement, patent pooling, and strong anti-trust enforcement to assure multiple sources for various energy components.

The energy moonshot would need to do many things that the Apollo moonshot did not. It would need to imagine multiple technology pathways, interact constantly with social demand, imagine future needs in an enriched sociocultural context, and be constructed bottom-up rather than top down.  In these ways, it would need to be radically different from the Apollo mission.

A moonshot is the opposite of the incrementalism that is plaguing renewable energy research.  We have long been getting small annual increases that neither accelerate research breakthroughs nor create interest among private investors.  Energy R&D has also been plagued by political instability, as can be seen in this graphic from the Dooley DOE report linked above.

Oil price spikes in the 1970s lead to a spike in energy R&D, which then collapsed almost as quickly.  Direct energy research has been a pitiful also-ran ever since.

Happily, commentators are increasingly fed up with this pattern.  They are explicitly targeting instability and incrementalism as huge problems for energy progress. An organization of technology heavyweights, led by Microsoft's Bill Gates, has called for an immediate tripling of energy research to $16 billion per year (over all energy categories).  In the introductory video clip for their American Innovation Energy Council, John Doerr notes that Americans spend more money on potato chips than they spend on energy research.  In his own clip, he goes on to note that only 4 of the 30 leading companies in a few key energy sectors are in the U.S.  The clip is pitched to scare policymakers into better funding with the prospect of U.S. economic decline in what Doerr calls the most important market of the 21st century.

And Bill Gates: "we're missing the basic innovation that would give us this whole new way of making energy." 

Gates also stresses the need to draw in about ten times more bright minds into the research, which is "fun work."

In a similar vein, Andrew Revkin's Dot Earth blog recently had a particularly good post on the funding problem. It caught my attention because it linked energy breakthroughs back to quantum dots, a science domain dear to my heart. But Revkin carries on with a series of links and comments from various analysts on this theme:
One key to a sustained national  energy quest, is greatly boosting direct federal support for basic research in relevant sciences. For decades, there’s been  bipartisan disinterest in such a push. Current investment in this area is so modest that just  a 2 cent rise in the federal gas tax would triple the activity.
 Many useful arguments follow on the dangers of instability and incrementalism alike.

It's good that these arguments for moonshot funding are increasingly visible. Real funding change is going to take an outside catalyst greater than even the BP Gulf oil disaster has been so far - some major triggering event.  The history is clear on this: Apollo is the son of Sputnik.  The Soviet's satellite success spawned NASA as an agency and then its moonshot out of a sense of a Cold War military urgency. Sputnik had a similarly dramatic effect on US education.  What kind of 2x4 upside the head will focus our attention this time?

The top picture is of Buzz Aldrin setting up a Solar Wind Collector on the moon.   It's time for the follow up.