President Barack Obama received generally poor marks for his June 15th Oval Office speech on the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. It was calm, reasoned and precisely worded - just the sort of thing that doesn't fly when Americans are angry. But the "law professor" speech, as some pundits derisively call it, offered an epiphany far more important than whatever its rhetorical deficiencies. The speech focused on what is now the greatest man-made ecological disaster in American history and made clear that the challenge that confronts us is far greater than the evident stupidity of BP.
"For decades, we have known the days of cheap and easily accessible oil were numbered," the President said. "For decades, we have talked and talked about the need to end America's century-long addiction to fossil fuels. And for decades, we have failed to act with the sense of urgency that this challenge requires. Time and again, the path forward has been blocked - not only by oil industry lobbyists, but also by a lack of political courage and candor."
"The consequences of our inaction are now in plain sight," the President dryly observed. But unless we learn from this terrible disaster, there are bound to be many more and varied catastrophes in the years ahead; and, in an increasingly crowded world, the result will be chronic suffering on an unimaginable scale.
As humanity grows from nearly seven billion people to 10 billion in the next 40 years, we will increasingly come up against severe challenges: Where do we get adequate fresh water supplies? How do we educate the next generation of Americans to ensure our national prosperity and security? What should be done about global climate change? How do we grow enough food to end starvation? How can we build the global infrastructure with cheap and readily available resources and thus avoid needless warfare?
The time to deal calmly and rationally with the huge challenges America - and the world - faces in the 21st century is well before an unfortunate accident happens. The Gulf tragedy should teach us that.
Yet, even as we confront a biblically proportioned flood of undersea crude, our nation spends nearly $1 billion a day -- every day! -- to import foreign oil, while China and other nations rapidly invest in clean energy jobs and industry. And the demand for clean renewable energy to support 10 billion people is only one of the many breathtakingly severe challenges we know are coming.
We need focus and determination to deal with those challenges, but they are so severe and coming upon us so fast - like the looming oil shortage we failed to address -- that we also need to encourage radically innovative thinking to address them.
While it could be argued that undersea drilling a mile below the surface and three miles below the seabed is radical and innovative, this advance is mere incrementalism. It's really just a stop-gap measure, every bit as fragile as our billion-dollar-a-day addiction to foreign oil. These blatantly expedient moves, like the existence of the massive dark plumes of death in the Gulf, ultimately reveal our inexcusable lack of true foresight and innovation. We have taken a laissez-faire approach to this vital issue, when all along we should have handled it like the strategic threat that it is.
If nothing else, the oil plumes are silent evidence that some challenges are so big and consequential that we can no longer simply assume that we will somehow muddle through. What's desperately needed here is the organized ability to think broadly, think radically, and then act - surely and swiftly. Certainly it is foolish to rely on big business, or the marketplace, to deal with these complicated challenges; the result of this approach is plainly evident in the Gulf. Indeed, government must play a much more aggressive role in fostering our nation's science and innovation.
At Research Corporation for Science Advancement (RCSA), the private foundation that I head, we have begun a program to accelerate science and innovation, albeit on a small scale. The first three-year round of a new grant-making program called Scialog® is bringing together the best and brightest young American researchers in the field of solar energy conversion - the process of turning sunlight into useable energy.
The ground rules are simple: the foundation will fund high-risk, potentially high-reward research that may lead to important breakthroughs to increase the efficiency of solar energy. And the foundation will work to ensure that evolving research projects with the greatest chance of doing that are subsequently funded, whether by government or industry, beyond the three years of the program. Furthermore, through the process of dialog, we hope to encourage this highly creative cohort of young scientists to come up with even more exciting ideas than the ones they've currently proposed -- and some of those already make science fiction seem dull.
We at RCSA believe that America will prosper in the coming century only by aggressively pursuing radically innovative research, and by actively pushing the by-products of that research into real-world solutions. We must anticipate and face the challenges ahead of us. In doing so, we believe that brilliant audacious minds, given encouragement and free reign, will ultimately provide the long-term solutions that presently escape us.
Ironically, what we learn from the Gulf oil spill could well save our planet. The question is: Will we learn?
James M. Gentile is president & CEO of Research Corporation for Science Advancement, America's first foundation dedicated wholly to science, founded in 1912.