Thursday, March 26th, 2009 | Author:

American innovation faces its biggest test for decades

In the dark hours of the second world war, scientists of the Manhattan Project worked secretly in the hills of Tennessee. This month, tucked in those same hills, scientists at Oak Ridge National Laboratory sat listening to their new mission. Thomas Mason, Oak Ridge’s director, stood beside a slide show, letting its contents sink in. The budget for the Department of Energy (DoE), a chart showed, was $24.2 billion in 2008. This year Congress gave the DoE $38.7 billion in the stimulus package and another $27 billion in appropriations. Mr Mason’s main message was simple: “We’ve really got to deliver.”

Politicians have been making noises about energy independence and climate change for some time. Federal spending on research and development, however, has remained far below the levels of the 1970s (see chart). Now rhetoric is finally being matched by cash. Within the DoE’s budget, Congress has appropriated $7.8 billion for energy R&D, 18% more than last year, and the stimulus provided about $8 billion. On March 23rd President Barack Obama and Steven Chu, the energy secretary, explained how some of the money would be spent, with money for labs—a new building at Oak Ridge will house researchers for solar batteries and superconducting transmission lines—as well as support for scientists exploring everything from carbon sequestration to hydrogen. Spending money, however, is easy. Results require hard work.

The Manhattan Project yielded the atomic bomb; the Apollo programme sent a man to the moon. Mr Obama’s goal to cut emissions by 80% by 2050 is at least as ambitious. Meeting this deadline will require not just a price on carbon and the wide adoption of existing technology, but inventions that are still just a glimmer in someone’s eye. Making matters more complex, new innovations must be deployed by companies and used by the public. The atomic bomb and the space shuttle had the government as their only customer.

Two reports published in February questioned the DoE’s ability to meet the task at hand without reform. The Brookings Institution, a think-tank, claimed that the DoE is too fragmented, its feet too stuck in the nuclear era, its labs too siloed to move quickly from research to commercialisation. Harvard University’s Kennedy School argued that the DoE needs to forge better links between basic science, applied research and deployment.

Promising efforts, however, are under way. Jeff Wadsworth, chief executive of Battelle, talks of new work at Oak Ridge, which his company manages with the University of Tennessee. Oak Ridge may have an inescapable nuclear legacy, with new buildings sprouting beside contaminated ones, but the lab has evolved. It conducts a wide range of research, working on energy sources that are old—scientists are trying to recycle spent nuclear fuel—as well as new. The BioEnergy Science Centre, one of the DoE’s more innovative programmes, is designed to emulate a start-up and develop cellulosic ethanol, tapping the expertise of labs, academia and industry. To court technology companies, Oak Ridge is planning an office park at the heart of its campus—speeding deployment and, officials hope, replacing a building once used to study Japanese corpses from Hiroshima.

Mr Chu himself is working to link basic and applied science, both within the DoE’s conventional channels and beyond them. The stimulus gives $400m to ARPA-E, a new programme modelled after one at the Department of Defence, to conduct speculative research. On March 23rd Mr Chu announced that $277m would go to Energy Frontier Research Centres, with teams at universities and labs working in many different fields, from photovoltaics to nuclear energy.

Mark Muro of Brookings suggests that the DoE should go further, awarding grants to regional partnerships of labs, universities, states, industry and entrepreneurs. The proposal may be included when Mr Obama reveals the details of his budget next month. But the next big thing could equally well come from a lab—Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, in California, hopes to develop a laser-powered fusion plant—or from a team of researchers and entrepreneurs. The more diverse the approach, the better.

Source: The Economist

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