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James M. Gentile

James M. Gentile

Posted: January 19, 2010 12:14 PM

Jumpstarting Energy Independence

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In an effort to jumpstart America's efforts toward energy independence, U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced last week that 69 early career researchers at U.S. academic institutions and Department of Energy (DOE) national laboratories have been chosen to receive a collective total of up to $85 million in funding for five years under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

The money is going to young scientists doing basic research in six major areas covered by DOE's Office of Science: advanced scientific computing, basic energy sciences, biological and environmental research, fusion energy sciences, high energy physics, and nuclear physics.

"This funding highlights the Administration's continued commitment to building the nation's scientific workforce by attracting top emerging researchers to careers in vital areas of basic research," Chu says. "By investing in scientific researchers in their formative years, we can provide scientists with the resources to do some of their most exciting and productive work."

DOE is boldly recognizing a phenomenon to which many in science pay lip-service, but to which government and private foundations over the years have not adequately applied funds, namely that early career researchers have come up with much of our breakthrough science over the last century. By committing this money to this cohort - those who have received a Ph.D. in the past decade and who are working toward tenure as an assistant professor, or those who are full-time DOE employees in national labs - Chu and the Obama Administration are laying down a shrewd bet on behalf of America's energy future; and make no mistake - this is a deadly serious gamble.

That's because the world badly needs breakthroughs in energy science. Regardless of what one may think about the connection between fossil fuels and global warming, there will soon come a time, possibly in this decade, when we see an irreversible decline in global oil production as demand continues to rise.

Shell Oil research scientist and government economic warfare analyst M. King Hubbert called it first and best in 1956 with his Peak Oil Theory. He came up with a simple bell curve to explain the rate of oil production over time and predicted that U.S. domestic oil production would peak - the top of the curve - between the late 1960s and early '70s, with resulting political and economic repercussions as discoverable reserves dropped off in subsequent years.

Hubbert was accurate on that point, as anyone who recalls the long lines at gas stations in 1973 might attest. The gas shortage that year was brought on by declining reserves in the U.S. while the Middle East oil-producing nations withheld shipments because they were ticked off at U.S. support for Israel.

More recently David Goodstein, professor of physics at Caltech, in his 2004 book, Out of Gas: The End of the Age of Oil, looked at Hubbert's research and more recent data and concluded that global demand for black gold will shortly exceed the world's ability to produce it. Goodstein also predicts that alternative energy sources - of the type DOE is funding in this latest round of grants - may be too little and too late to stave off serious disruptions to our way of life.

"Civilization as we know it will come to an end sometime in this century unless we can find a way to live without fossil fuels," Goodstein cautions.

In the face of such a calamitous possibility, DOE's decision to fund innovative, early career scientists - to the tune of $150,000 a year for five years in the case of university researchers, and $500,000 a year for the same period for DOE's up-and-coming, in-house talent - is an important step in the right direction. But we need to free up more bright young thinkers to tackle other looming crises - global shortages of clean water, potential pandemics, catastrophic climate change, and disruptions and shortages in food production.

More and better funding of early career researchers to tackle these problems from new perspectives and with novel methods certainly has an increased element of risk - the failure rate is always higher when science is based on out-of-the-box thinking; but a well-designed experiment that fails also teaches us much in the process. All good science experimentation, as in this latest DOE program, is peer-reviewed by professional colleagues beforehand, which means even established thinkers believe it's worth a shot.

We owe it to the next generation of Americans to help today's early-career scientists build tomorrow's science and technology infrastructure. The federal bureaucracy is beginning to understand the importance of doing so, as evidenced by Dr. Chu's announcement, and it is time for our nation's colleges and universities to show they're aware of the situation.

We must do more for early-career scientists and America's future prosperity and security by:

-- Promoting more high-risk transformative research across disciplinary boundaries where the big complicated problems need to be solved;

-- Assuring today's young scientists of rewarding career paths by modifying existing standards for achieving tenure to include teaching and collaborative problem-solving. This includes defining pathways for our high-end undergraduate colleges - the biggest source of most American science Ph.D.s - to build and sustain research-rich cultures;

-- Enhancing opportunities for undergraduate students and their professors to engage in real research in college and university laboratories, thus encouraging the next generation to think like scientists during their most creative years, rather than to merely think about science. It's important to keep our eye on science education, because tomorrow's researchers will be crucial to solving 21st-century problems. We must also improve science education for women and minorities group members so that we benefit fully from the nation's brain trust.

Doing these things now, rather than later, will yield big benefits a decade or two hence. Dr. Chu and DOE are making the right moves. It may be the best $85 million the federal government spends in the next five years.

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