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James M. Gentile

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Solyndra: Will We Learn From Science?

Posted: 09/27/11 12:59 PM ET

The recent bankruptcy of Solyndra, the solar panel maker that received $535 million in federally guaranteed loans, is making headlines and spawning investigations. But the key question that is being missed -- and that should be asked now -- is: Will the federal government approach this failure as politicians or as scientists?

The question is important, because politics and science confront failure in fundamentally different ways. In politics, failure provides an opportunity to place blame, to score points on an adversary, to heighten distinctions. The media often feeds on that approach, as recent Solyndra headlines make clear: "Lawmakers accuse Solyndra execs of ripping off taxpayers" (The Washington Post); "Solar firm failure casts doubt on fed loan program" (Phoenix Business Journal); "GOP hammers Solyndra, Obama White House" (USA Today).

In science, however, failure is an essential ingredient of exploration. It's the revelation that clarifies paths to transformational understanding. It's what enables researchers to refine or discount one approach and pursue others. It's what enables us to learn from our mistakes and become truly innovative.

The challenge for our nation is to ensure that the failure of Solyndra -- and the government loans along with it -- moves our nation forward and makes us more innovative.

There are clearly narrower questions that must be answered: Should the loan process be reformed? Was too much federal money in this instance placed at risk? Was it adequately isolated from political pressure? But the bigger question is: Will our nation -- and our leadership as scientific and technological innovators -- benefit from this failure?

There is perhaps no better example in U.S. corporate history of how to benefit from failure than the case of Apple, which ousted co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs in 1985 after a boardroom coup. He returned as an advisor in 1996, "when the firm was in dire straits," in the words of The Economist. A year later, he became Interim CEO. (Interestingly, he launched the iMac and the iBook before the "Interim" was dropped from his title in 2000.)

The Apple Board had clearly learned from the experience, as had Jobs, who asked in his famous 2005 commencement address at Stanford University the amusing but deeply thoughtful question: "How can you get fired from a company you started?"

He added: "I didn't see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life."

In August 2011 -- just prior to Jobs' resignation as CEO, Apple briefly passed Exxon Mobil as the world's most valuable company.

Drawing on the Apple analogy, will the United States now learn from the Solyndra failure and free itself to enter one of the most creative periods in solar energy research and technology? Our nation, after all, has much on which to build.

As Peter Lehner of the Natural Resources Defense Council writes, "The truth is Solyndra was just 1 of 40 recipients of Department of Energy loan guarantees. It represents only 2.9 percent of the DOE's renewable energy loan portfolio."

In addition, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association, "On the whole, the U.S. is currently the strongest, most stable national growth market for photovoltaics. This is reflected both in the numbers and in the chatter from global suppliers, distributors, and developers, all of which are bullish on near-term U.S. demand. By the end of 2011, the U.S. market has the potential to nearly double its global market share and support a more equitable distribution of installation types than has previously been seen in any leading demand center."

The investigations into the federal loans to Solyndra have only begun. As the Economist reported last week, "Two committees of the House of Representatives were holding hearings on the fiasco this week. The FBI is investigating the firm, as are the Energy and Justice Departments and the Treasury. The Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee wants the Justice Department to open a full-scale independent investigation."

The challenge for us as a nation is to learn the right lessons from the investigations -- to learn what it will take for us to lead the world in solar energy technology and innovation. With so many Americans looking for work -- and the American solar industry now employing more people than either the steel or coal industries -- "Gotcha" is not good enough. "Aha!" is where we should be headed.

James M. Gentile is president and CEO of Research Corporation for Science Advancement, America's second-oldest foundation, and the first devoted wholly to science.