Federal R&D in a Challenging Environment
“We are now going to have to cut back somewhere…. But we want to cut fat, not muscle and bone. And research and innovation are the muscle power that grows our economy. That’s why we must prioritize these cuts so they do not do lasting damage to American innovation but keep our economy in fighting shape."
This country is hungry for energy alternatives—not just because they are cleaner. We are hungry for alternatives because they are in our self-interest—both our economic interest and our national security interest. The bonus is that they are also in our environmental interest. We want to maintain our standard of living without exposing ourselves to international disruptions or fouling the environment. Yet somehow we don’t seem to be able to summon the will. The myth has become that: 1) these technologies cost too much, and 2) we lack the scientific and technical ability to achieve them. I would like to challenge these myths.
The first myth is that these technologies cost too much: Over the past 30 years we have indeed poured billions into tax subsidies for renewable energy without generating much result. We have mandated and subsidized ethanol consumption to the point where one-third of our corn crop now ends up in our gas tanks. This has raised food prices and caused shortages all around the world. At the same time, we have subsidized mature energy technologies such as coal, oil and gas that don’t really need our support.
But that should not discourage us about the basic task of supporting research and development. Federal research dollars have given us the internet, stealth technology, the GPS system and nuclear power. The science coming out of the Department of Energy still bears fruit. The Jaguar Computer at Oak Ridge, one of the world’s fastest, has helped us design aerodynamic trucks that are far more fuel efficient. A company called Sunpower just signed a contract with Pacific Gas & Electric in California to build the world’s largest photovoltaic power plant. The technology came from a DOE-funded project at Stanford. Even Google started out as a graduate student project funded by the National Science Foundation. In each of these cases federally sponsored research was the key in helping the private sector develop a novel product. I ask you: haven’t our lives all been improved by the products of this basic research?
Unfortunately, though, we are now going to have to cut back somewhere. Everyone knows we can no longer continue the spending spree that has characterized Washington in recent years. But we want to cut fat, not muscle and bone. And research and innovation are the muscle power that grows our economy. That’s why we must prioritize these cuts so they do not do lasting damage to American innovation but keep our economy in fighting shape.
The second myth is that America no longer has the capacity to innovate: In truth, Americans still produce 20 percent of all world’s wealth. Most of our economic progress has come from the development of new technologies. We are the birthplace of the telephone, the electric light, the automobile, the radio, the television, the computer and the internet. But can we continue this pattern?
In 2007, China had more people pursuing scientific and engineering research than any country in the world except the U.S. China has now replaced us as the world’s largest high-tech exporter and has the world’s fastest supercomputer The Russians are moving ahead much faster than we are with nuclear technology. They are exploring putting reactors on barges and in locomotives and have offered to reprocess most of the world’s nuclear waste. Nuclear energy, the greatest scientific advance of the 20th century, is beginning to pass us by. France, Japan, Russia, Korea and China are all building their own reactors and starting to market them around the world.
The Japanese and Chinese have taken the lead on solar power and renewable energy as well. The Lithium-ion battery, invented by John Goodenough of the United States, is now being produced in Japan, Taiwan and China, with the U.S. share of the market only 1 percent. Our educational system is slipping and our technical and scientific leadership is falling behind. People now seem to accept the idea that new inventions will be developed somewhere outside the United States. But to paraphrase Mark Twain, “reports of the demise of innovation in America have been greatly exaggerated.”
It is my belief that the work done by ARPA-E and the private-sector innovators will lead us into a world of improved, clean, reliable low-cost energy. We have already seen the seeds sown at ARPA-E begin to sprout:
• 1366 Technologies, a small Massachusetts company, has developed a technology for low-cost solar panels, starting with a $4 million investment from ARPA-E. It has since secured $33.4 million in private funding.
• Sun Catalytix, another Massachusetts company, has developed a catalyst that helps split water into hydrogen and oxygen so that solar and wind-generated electricity can be stored as a usable fuel. The company started with $4 million from ARPA-E and has since secured $9.5 million in private funding.
• Envia, a small California company, has used $4 million from ARPA-E to develop a very high-energy Lithium-ion battery. The company recently received $17 million in private funding.
It is with all this in mind that I ask you to consider the wondrous new energy innovations our scientists are creating. For America to continue its longstanding role as economic world leader, we will need more Thomas Edisons, more Albert Einsteins, more Eli Whitneys, more Grace Hoppers, one of the first computer scientists, more Bill Gates. The most successful economies of the 21st century will be those that invent and embrace the newest and best technologies. I applaud you for your work and challenge you to emulate those great innovators of the past and lead us into the new world of energy innovations.
Lamar Alexander, a Republican, is the senior senator from Tennessee and one of the co-sponsors of the America Competes act. He was a keynote speaker at the ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit in March in Washington, D. C. This article is excerpted from his remarks.