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A New Mission for American Science

Now Is the Time for a Momentous Embrace of Energy Innovation

Beakers with a light bulb above SOURCE: iStockphoto, SP While everybody is talking about energy these days, they're not necessarily talking about the scientific opportunity so much as the business one. The moment is right for researchers to take up—with a sense of unshaking mission and purpose—the grand cause of a generation.

It’s in the air right now, though perhaps not fully articulate. But it’s in the media, on the lips of presidential candidates…and perhaps grasped most of all by cultural seers like Al Gore.We’re not hearing it stated powerfully enough yet by scientists—with this being a striking exception—although hopefully that will change. Because in some ways, it affects them the most.

But enough hinting already. If I may be so bold as to interpret the Zeitgeist, it’s saying this: American science stands on the verge of acquiring a new, transformational mission, one similar in its magnitude—although very different in its substance—to the one that it took up in the post World War II and post-Sputnik era.

Back then, science’s mission was to provide the technological insights that would improve not only our quality of life but the national defense and, above all, keep us ahead of the Soviets. The mission was sparked by the 1957 launch of Sputnik, and epitomized by the Apollo program: A dramatic, government-funded buildup in scientific capacity with an overwhelming, inspirational goal—put a man on the moon and do it first. Which we did.

The poster child for energy innovation today is T. Boone Pickens, rather than a scientist or engineer. And that says it all.

Now, in contrast, the new mission is this: Pursue the innovations that will allow us to fundamentally remake our energy economy and infrastructure, so that we can power our society through far cheaper, renewable sources—while creating thousands of new jobs and defeating global warming to boot. Skyrocketing energy costs and worsening climate change are the sparks behind this mission. And it will be epitomized by…well, we don’t quite know yet. But something BIG.

Now I fully admit that so far, much of this might sound somewhat familiar and less than earth-shattering. But if that’s the case, pause for a second. Yes, everybody is talking about energy these days. But they’re not necessarily talking about it as a scientific opportunity so much as a business one. The poster child for energy innovation today is T. Boone Pickens, rather than a scientist or engineer. And that says it all.

Now’s the time, it seems to me, for scientists to step up and claim the frame that is already so prevalent that top politicians are speaking about it. When Al Gore talks about our “generational moment,” after all, who better than scientists to seize it?

In fact, it’s greatly in scientists’ interests to be leading the charge on energy right now. Here is a scientific topic that everybody—everybody across the entire culture—cares about. Here is a chance for educating the public, infusing science literacy, drawing increased funding, and even for showing some old fashioned heroism.

The door is more than halfway open, after all, and just waiting to be pushed. Politicians are already sounding many of these notes—it’s just that they’re not always doing so in the context of bestowing a new responsibility and mission upon America’s scientific establishment.

Hillary Clinton came the closest. Speaking on the fifty-year anniversary of Sputnik, the Senator called for an “Apollo-like effort in clean, renewable energy,” and a $50 billion “Strategic Energy Fund” to generate and subsidize innovation. Senator John McCain, meanwhile, has proposed that the federal government offer a $300 million dollar prize for development of advance electric car batteries. Finally, Senator Barack Obama, like Clinton, talks about investing vast sums in clean energy—creating a “green energy sector”—but has done less to frame the matter as a challenge for America’s talented population of scientists in particular. (The point may be implicit in some of Obama’s rhetoric, but it isn’t really stated.)

So the politicians are starting to get it—but don’t fully grasp the science angle yet. And what of the scientists?

Perhaps the most science-centric articulations of the idea that I’ve seen come from Internet pioneer Vinton Cerf, writing right here at Science Progress, and Teryn Norris and Jesse Jenkins of the Breakthrough Institute. The latter argued recently in the San Francisco Chronicle that we need a National Energy Education Act, parallel to the post-Sputnik National Defense Education Act of 1958, that would invest dramatic sums in creating educational opportunities for scientists who wish to work on new energy innovations. “New research grants, graduate fellowships and energy-science-and-policy focused curricula; financial aid and loan forgiveness for students entering clean energy development fields”—all this, and more, are part of Norris’s and Jenkins’s proposal. And in focusing their prescriptions on universities in particular, they’re getting quite close to the kind of vision for American science that we need to see emerge right now, just as it did in the troubled days after Sputnik.

Certainly the magnitude of the challenge is similar. And there’s an even more important parallel—the mechanism by which the challenge must be answered.

Following Sputnik, the buildup in national scientific capacity came about as the direct and intentional result of dramatic government investment. Federal funding for scientific education and scientific research alike boomed, because suddenly science became a matter of major public import. The private sector, alone, wasn’t going to undertake anything visionary like the Apollo program; and by the same token, although private sector energy companies and entrepreneurs will surely make a fortune off of the new innovations that we so badly need right now, they can’t be expected to comprehensively underwrite the undirected, curiosity-driven research that will lay the groundwork for them.

All of which amounts to an inspiring vision, to be sure—but at the same time, I’m concerned. Is there enough fire in the belly right now—and enough outspoken leadership—in the scientific community?

American scientists certainly don’t seem to be having any problem producing new research or training students today. The NSF reports that a record number of science and engineering Ph.D.s, 29,854, were awarded in 2006, the most recent year for which statistics are currently available. But whether these students are taking up their doctorates with a sense of clear mission, other than steadily increasing our knowledge, is less obvious.

In fact, one could argue that the whole history of American science in the post-World War II era can be divided into a period in which the research community marched along with a clear national mission and a central animating cause—and then a period in which that sense of unity gradually fell away amid the decline of cultural consensus associated with the Vietnam era and afterwards. Science budgets soon grew less generous; science itself increasingly came under fire. Politicians began to treat scientists like just another interest group; and sure enough, every interest group hired one or two of its own.

This broad trend of declining influence for science could certainly be reversed in the context of a dramatic buildup of university-centered energy research; a buildup that would come about at the hands of a visionary president, and in response to an urgent national need.

The mission is there, just waiting, should American science choose to accept it.

Chris Mooney is a contributing editor to Science Progress and the author of two books, The Republican War on Science and Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming. He blogs on The Intersection with Sheril Kirshenbaum.


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