Clean energy may well be the next economic revolution, and the United States can be at the forefront, if we take full advantage of our nation's strengths. That will require an extraordinary collaboration between government, the private sector, and the scientific and philanthropic communities. It will also require the support of the American people.
There is reason to be optimistic, but the competition is great and growing rapidly. At stake is our stature as a superpower, the economic activity that will result from achieved leadership, and the jobs that will go elsewhere if not to the United States.
Making the competition even more complex is that the United States' greatest competitor is also our largest financial backer. According to the U.S. Treasury Department, China increased its U.S. bond holdings to $906.8 billion, as of October 2010. "At the same time," according to James Fallows in the Atlantic, "Chinese factories lead the world in output of windmills and solar-power panels." In addition, according to The New York Times, "The United States is too reliant on China for minerals crucial to new clean energy technologies, making the American economy vulnerable to shortages of materials needed for a range of green products - from compact fluorescent light bulbs to electric cars to giant wind turbines... At least 96 percent of the most crucial types of the so-called rare earth minerals are now produced in China, and Beijing has wielded various export controls to limit the minerals' supply to other countries while favoring its own manufacturers that use them."
Fortunately, for the United States, we have an exceptional team of scientists leading our federal effort. They include, among others: Steven Chu, Nobel Prize-winning Energy Secretary; John Holdren, Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and former President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science; Arun Majumdar, Director of ARPA-E, the nation's only agency devoted to transformational energy research and development; and, Nathan Lewis, the Caltech chemistry professor who directs the U.S. Department of Energy's $120-million Energy Innovation Hub.
An organization of stellar business leaders has also come together in support of green energy innovation. The American Energy Innovation Council is a bipartisan group of business leaders whose mission is to foster strong economic growth, create jobs in new industries, and reestablish America's energy technology leadership through robust, public investments in the development of world-changing energy technologies. The Council's seven members are Bill Gates, Bank of America Chairman Chad Holliday, General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt, Cummins CEO Tim Solso, Xerox CEO Ursula Burns, former Lockheed Martin CEO Norm Augustine, and John Doerr, a partner in the venture capital firm of Kleiner Perkins. Interestingly, six of the seven business leaders have backgrounds in STEM fields: aeronautical engineering, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, computer science, industrial engineering, and applied mathematics.
What's needed now is for the coalition for green energy innovation to grow further, incorporating our equally world-class scientific and philanthropic communities. Some foundations - like Research Corporation for Science Advancement, which I lead - have taken steps on their own to spark transformational green energy research. Our Scialog® initiative is focused on solar energy conversion, and both Arun Majumdar and Nathan Lewis participated, along with the National Science Foundation, in an initial four-day scialog (short for science dialogue), which brought world-renowned researchers together with early career scientists at Biosphere 2 last October.
Also needed is a broader engagement of the public, who in the end set the agenda for the government. Key to that broader engagement are two needed shifts in public priorities:
The first shift involves a greater commitment to high-risk high-reward research - not the cautious inquiry that produces incremental change but the transformational research that yields groundbreaking advances. For that, we as a nation must recognize the reality that scientific breakthroughs rarely occur where you expect them. They occur through a process of following leads until they dead-end and then following more leads.
Some of those leads will inevitably involve inquiries that may seem absurd to an outside observer. Former U.S. Senator William Proxmire became nationally renowned for his Golden Fleece Awards for ridiculous-sounding research projects. In one famous case, he ridiculed the Aspen Map, because it sounded like an absurd topic for research. It is now considered a pioneering example of interactive computing.
If we are to remain leaders in scientific innovation, we will need to let the science determine the research, not those looking for the attention of a quick joke. Scientific innovation has been the backbone of U.S. economic preeminence, and we must continue to pursue it, even when it sounds preposterous. Most groundbreaking change does.
The second shift involves public recognition that science - while intimidating to some - is our future, and it needs to be funded aggressively. As syndicated columnist George F. Will wrote on January 1st, "From 1970 to 1995, federal support for research in the physical sciences, as a fraction of gross domestic product, declined 54 percent; in engineering, 51 percent. On a per-student basis, state support of public universities has declined for more than two decades and was at the lowest level in a quarter-century before the current economic unpleasantness. Annual federal spending on mathematics, the physical sciences and engineering now equals only the increase in health-care costs every nine weeks."
Green energy innovation is the perfect focus for a renewed commitment to American scientific leadership. We have extraordinary government and business leaders already involved; we have acclaimed scientific and philanthropic communities to engage further, and we have an American public hungry for the jobs that innovation has produced in the past. It's time to come together as a nation around this priority - to provide the necessary funding and to look forward to the economic prosperity that will result.
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.