President Obama and the Need for Scientific Breakthroughs in Clean Energy

06/06/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

As the head of a private foundation that has been funding transformational scientific research for generations, I applaud President Barack Obama's recent statements on the need to double America's capacity to generate renewable energy over the next few years. Advancing truly transformational science in the field of clean energy is paramount.

At Research Corporation for Science Advancement, our experience, however, suggests that how research funds are spent is every bit as important as how much funding is available. And our experience includes providing early support for research breakthroughs in projects ranging from rocket propulsion to the first large cyclotron to conquering diseases like pellagra and beriberi.

In his landmark speech before the National Academies of Science on April 27th, President Obama said, "The nation that leads the world in 21st-century clean energy will be the nation that leads in the 21st-century global economy. America can and must be that nation."

He noted that federally funded research and development already has dropped the cost of solar panels by 10-fold over the last three decades. But there is much more that must be accomplished in our nation's research labs if we are to replace oil and coal with renewables in the face of ever-growing world energy demands.

Part of the problem, admittedly, is that fossil fuels are still relatively cheap and pack a high-energy punch for the dollar, while wind, solar and other renewable sources are more costly and complicated because they can't just be pulled out of the ground. Of course, renewables have the advantage of not spewing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which is the ultimate reason we need them.

President Obama has wisely made scientific research a significant focus of the federal economic stimulus package, which includes $21.5 billion for research and development, and he has increased science funding significantly in his proposed budget for fiscal year 2010. He has also endorsed a market-based cap -- a tax, really -- on carbon emissions, in order to "make renewable energy the profitable kind of energy in America."

But policy measures like cap-and-trade will take us only so far. Ultimately, scientific research must take us well beyond our current technology if we hope to support 10-15 billion humans on this planet for centuries to come.

To that end, the president reaffirmed his support for the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy, or ARPA-E, which Congress created two years ago. Modeled after the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, DARPA, it is an intensive approach to research that is high-risk in terms of the potential for failure, but one that offers high-rewards if the cutting-edge research proves successful.

DARPA, created during the Eisenhower Administration, gave us such wonders as stealth technology and the Global Positioning System, as the President noted. ARPA-E, a quick and flexible organization with very little bureaucracy, could do the same for our energy needs. At last report roughly $400 million had been allocated for ARPA-E research.

But even with these extraordinary funding commitments from the Obama administration, our nation's energy and other environmental problems can only be addressed successfully if we also expand our "mental capital."

If we hope to solve the increasingly complicated puzzles that nature throws at us, we must ensure that our best scientific minds are working collaboratively, across disciplines, with a willingness to consider concepts that might to others seem beside the point. Scientific discoveries don't evolve in a linear way, moving steadily from point A to point B. They develop through trial and error: by following intriguing hypotheses into dead-ends and then back-tracking down side roads that hadn't been observed before.

It's easy to poke fun at scientific inquiries that may on their face seem extraneous, but it's just those inquiries that may, on further exploration, reveal a crucial clue essential to a breakthrough. Enabling scientists to follow their own paths, rather than follow only those that seem appropriate to a lay reader of a Congressional report, is part of the innovation needed to ensure that our "mental capital" is expended wisely.

Research Corporation for Science Advancement is currently exploring new ways to encourage multi-disciplinary scientific research, to enhance dialogue beyond individual fields of knowledge and inquiry, and to enable scientists to share and consider ideas that might just be crazy enough to work. Our hope is that private research foundations can complement the federal government's far greater, and absolutely essential, funding by inspiring a renewed commitment to consider the impossible, to question the unquestionable, to recognize that scientific breakthroughs don't emerge where you expect them. Being willing to look wherever ethical scientific inquiry leads us is, in fact, a crucial component of achieving the breakthroughs on which our planet depends.

James M. Gentile, Ph.D., is president and CEO of Research Corporation for Science Advancement, America's second-oldest foundation (