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Energy: Apollo-like Program Needed

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A shaky U.S. economy faces further erosion by escalating energy costs. Consumers’ energy gluttony threatens national security. Growing evidence indicates fossil-fuel emissions are altering the global climate. These issues are not only real but also “profoundly tied together,” argued MIT president Susan Hockfield, this morning. The way to get out of this bind, she said, is to catalyze “a dramatic new level of federal investment in energy research and development.”

Hockfield was one of a quartet of luminaries who came to the National Press Club, here in Washington, D.C., to discuss why the public and lawmakers should enthusiastically hand over more money for basic energy research — those long-term studies with no immediately obvious payoff.

The nation’s universities, industries and national labs should galvanize around a common goal of learning how to do more — with less: less energy, that is. Indeed, Hockfield and the others said; cutting energy use should become the 21st century’s Apollo mission — a broad-based national initiative equivalent in focus and enthusiasm to the engineering marvel that allowed America to initially land humans on the moon.

I asked whether the doubling of federal investments in basic research that has been proposed by presidential candidate Barack Obama (and rejected as too costly by the campaign of his rival John McCain) would be enough to accomplish this heroic feat. Not nearly, Hockfield replied. “I’m calling for an immediate tripling [of federal spending], and may up to a 10-fold increase.”

In fact, a doubling in basic research funding would only restore federal investments in that sector (measured as a percent of gross domestic product) to where they were in the 1970s, according to David Bell, president of Intersil Corp., a manufacturer of high-performance semiconductors.

After someone questioned how all this new money might be spent, Hockfield demurred and acknowledged “we don’t have a roadmap.” Indeed, this cartographic initiative should get underway immediately, she argued, before conditions — the economy, energy prices and the global climate —get any worse.

I think this morning’s speakers made a strong case. Unfortunately, it probably doesn’t matter much what I think. Lawmakers weigh issues and decisions differently than I do, and I don’t reflect the average consumer. And this may severely limit the impact of this morning’s message.

I’m swayed by facts and the value of investing in research. It comes from studying science and what it can tell us about our universe. I also tend to take the long view. I can afford to. I’m not living from paycheck to paycheck or threatened with being evicted from my home. Such swords of Damocles distract us, understandably, from worrying about what our world will look like a year from now, let alone a century hence.

So, talking to me is like preaching to the converted. What today’s speakers did not do is couch their arguments in ways that are likely to convince most skeptics to become a convert. One who gave it a good shot, though, was Steven Chu, a Nobel laureate in physics and director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

He argued for the precautionary principle with this apocryphal scenario: Firemen put out the flames and save a home that has just experienced an electrical fire. Afterwards, the fire chief advises the owner to get his home inspected to see if the wiring was at fault and needs replacing. The first company the owner calls comes in and says yep: “This home is a fire waiting to happen. But for $20,000 it can be fixed and your family can sleep without fear.”

Not wanting to spend that much, the owner invites in a second and third company to assess the situation. And hears much the same conclusion.

That homeowner could bring in 50 more people to assess his situation and find one that tells him all is okay. But, Chu asked, is that prudent? Certainly, the homeowner’s safety and the lives of his family are worth more than $20,000. So, costly as it is, he should make the investment.

He was trying to strike a parallel to the United States, where its safety and economic security are imperiled by reliance on inefficient and polluting energy sources. Funding energy research should be viewed not as a cost, he says, but as an investment in an upgrade that’s necessary to survive.

Maybe. But I suspect the public — and their representatives in Congress — would like to see Hockfield’s roadmap of how our tax dollars would be spent. Writing a blank check is usually dangerous. Moreover, how can we hold our government accountable if criteria don’t yet exist to gauge whether it hits or misses the mark?

Let’s light a fire under our energy-research experts and get that roadmap. Pronto.

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