Sunday, January 20, 2008

U.S. Academia is Ripe for a Massive Investment in Energy Technology Research

In his book, The World is Flat, Thomas Friedman discusses at great length how the world is changing from the effects of globalization and improved communication technologies. A well-supported theme throughout the book is that the science and engineering capabilities of the United States of America are in dire need of revitalization if our country is to remain at or near the cutting edge of the world’s technological developments. Mr. Friedman proposes that a massive investment in science and engineering has been done before, and it is time to do it again:

President Kennedy understood that the competition with the Soviet Union was not a space race but a science race, which was really an education race. Yet the way he chose to get Americans excited about sacrificing and buckling down to do what it took to win the Cold War – which required a large-scale push in science and engineering – was by laying out the vision of putting a man on the moon, not a missile into Moscow. If President Bush is looking for a similar legacy project, there is one just crying out – a national science initiative that would be our generation’s moon shot: a crash program for alternative energy and conservation to make America energy-independent in ten years. If President Bush made energy independence his moon shot, in one fell swoop he would dry up revenue for terrorism, force Iran, Russia, Venezuela, and Saudi Arabia onto the path of reform – which they will never do with $60-a-barrel oil – strengthen the dollar, and improve his own standing in Europe by doing something huge to reduce global warming. He could also create a real magnet to inspire young people to contribute to both the war on terrorism and America’s future by again becoming scientists, engineers, and mathematicians.

It is certainly debatable whether ten years is a realistic goal for our energy independence or whether the all cited ramifications of such a program would really happen. However, I think a very solid case can be made for a massive and sustained investment in energy technology from our government and our society as a whole. The pieces to make this happen are ready and waiting; what is lacking is the leadership and initiative.

I was reminded of Mr. Friedman’s proposal recently when I saw a recent article in the Boston Globe about a large investment that two foreign energy companies have made in a U.S. university performing energy research. Eni, an Italian oil company, contributed $50 million over five years for an alternative energy research thrust at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, about half of it going towards solar energy. This followed BP, a British company, contributing $25 million to this MIT program to develop technologies supporting cleaner ways of generating electricity from coal fuels and capturing the output carbon. The article also mentioned two U.S. companies: Ford contributing $5 million for technologies enabling more efficient automobiles and Chevron contributing $5 million for oil exploration technologies.

It is interesting that foreign companies are by far the biggest investors in this MIT research initiative. These foreign companies will surely get some strategic advantage as a result of their investment, and they will also likely recruit some highly-trained and motivated engineers and scientists. U.S. academic research capabilities are ripe for a massive investment in energy technologies. If our own government will not do it, governments and companies from other countries will, and they will also reap the benefits.

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