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America Needs To Re-Energize Our Scientific Culture

10/22/2010 09:35 am 09:35:38 | Updated May 25, 2011

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman recently endorsed a "Manhattan Project" approach to renewable energy research. Specifically, he urged the U.S. Congress to fully fund what U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu calls "a series of mini-Manhattan projects": eight "innovation hubs" to solve the world's biggest energy problems. Congress has funded only three of the eight so far.

The eight areas requiring high-priority research and development include: smart grid, solar electricity, carbon capture and storage, extreme materials, batteries and energy storage, energy- efficient buildings, nuclear energy, and fuels from sunlight. I would add one more hub to the list - one that is fundamental to all that America must do to innovate its way to a prosperous and secure 21st century, not only in energy but in all fields where continued scientific and technological leadership is essential to our future economic competitiveness.

That project is to improve our national academic-based science culture. We must create a culture that does a much better job of supporting early career researchers, science's most creative cohort, as well as their innovative ideas that lead to breakthrough discoveries; a culture that more tightly integrates research and undergraduate science education so that the next generation of researchers hits the ground fully ready to tackle big seemingly intractable problems; and a culture that encourages interdisciplinary and collaborative approaches to research, so that America remains first and best at doing the impossible.

Research Corporation for Science Advancement (RCSA), the independent foundation I lead, is trying to do just that with our limited resources, but success requires the increased support of the federal government as well. RCSA's new Scialog program, for example - combining science and dialog - recently brought together top young scientists from various U.S universities to discuss their most innovative and intellectually risky ideas for increasing the efficiency of processes that convert sunlight into electricity and fuel. The Scialog meeting - co-sponsored by the National Science Foundation and held at Biosphere 2 near Tucson, AZ - also involved leading authorities in solar research, including Caltech's Nate Lewis, head of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE)'s solar fuels hub, one of the three funded hubs that Friedman referenced.

Lewis laid down a seemingly audacious challenge for the 50 or so participants. He asked them to come up with an artificial system for photosynthesis: the process by which plants use sunlight to make complex organic materials, including oxygen and carbohydrates - fuel - from carbon dioxide, water and inorganic salts.

"Nobody has a real artificial photosynthesis system they can hold in their hand," Lewis said. "We have to build a real system - it doesn't have to be perfect - so we can figure out what really works."

Why? Because the nation that figures out how to do this - and do it better and more efficiently even than nature - will lead the world in the production of clean renewable fuel.

Arun Majumdar, Director of the DOE's newly funded ARPA-E (Advanced Research Projects Agency - Energy), also addressed the meeting. He pointed out that the world's population is expected to grow from 6.5 billion today to as much as 10 billion or more in a few decades, with much of that growth occurring in poor countries. These billions, he noted, will want to live in ways that are likely to require much more energy on a global scale. Regardless of what you believe about global climate change, we simply do not have enough coal and oil to sustain 10 billion people into the far future.

Majumdar, who reports to Secretary Chu, noted that many of us in the developed world will have to change the way we do things - hence President Obama's call for a smart electrical grid, energy-efficient buildings, and the rest. The world's energy needs alone will require a "new industrial revolution;" but instead of taking 150 years, as the first industrial revolution did, this one must happen in only two decades if we are to avoid widespread economic disruptions, or worse. He added that these challenges present marvelous opportunities to create whole new industries - something this nation badly needs in a slow economy.

Fully 40 percent of the American economy in the last half-century is estimated to have stemmed from scientific innovation. According to the National Academy of Sciences, roughly five percent of the U.S. workforce is comprised of scientists, whose discoveries provide many jobs for the other 95 percent. That's why bolstering America's academic-based science education and research culture is so important to all Americans.

"This may seem like a little issue, but it's not," Friedman writes of our need for energy innovation, but it could apply as well to how we tend to our basic scientific culture. "Nations thrive or languish usually not because of one big bad decision, but because of thousands of small bad ones - decisions where priorities get lost and resources misallocated so that the nation's full potential can't be nurtured and it ends up being less than the sum of its parts. That is my worry for America." Amen, brother.

James M. Gentile is president and CEO of Research Corporation for Science Advancement (www.rescorp.org), America's second-oldest foundation, founded in 1912, and the first dedicated wholly to science.