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National Institutes of Health: A Model for Jumpstarting Energy R&D

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In 1798, a new federal agency began its life in a one-room laboratory to provide health care for merchant sailors. It covered the costs of this service by sending a single clerk from across the country to collect 20 cents per month from each sailor. This agency, originally the Merchant Health Service, gave birth to what today is the National Institutes of Health. And the NIH should serve as a model for where we need to go on energy research and development in America.

The NIH is extremely effective at what it does. A new report by Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management says the NIH plays a "central role" in medical innovation. According to the Congressional Joint Economic Committee, the NIH was "instrumental" in funding 15 of the 21 major breakthrough drugs from 1965 to 1992.

Fifteen of 21 major medical breakthroughs - that mean 71% of our medical progress has come through NIH. That's a terrific investment.

In every policy debate in Washington, it is vital that the public appreciate what's in it for them, how a program will work, and why it will be successful. The NIH is well-known and highly regarded because it is easy for the public to understand:

As the JEC study shows, funding goes out; very smart people use it; we get good results.

The reality is that the current scheme of funding for energy R&D alone is not enough to drive innovation at the pace or scale required to spark a clean energy revolution. Despite the very good work many of our national energy labs conduct, the reality is that the Department of Energy was not intended to conduct energy R&D that is connected to commercial development and consumer use. DOE was born from disparate nuclear weapons and energy agencies. Sixty-three percent of its funding in the FY08 budget and almost 50 percent in FY09 was for nuclear weapons management and clean up. Simply put, this department is not currently set up to spend the $15 billion in new R&D funding we believe is necessary to transition to clean energy.

That's why we are proposing the creation of a National Institutes of Energy (you can read our new report). It is easy to understand and generate public support, centrally coordinated but regionally based and outside of the current DOE research framework.

NIE's mission would be clear: to fund and conduct commercially viable clean energy research. This is important not only for researchers but also for the Congress, which needs to fund energy R&D and the public, which supports government-sponsored R&D when it's tied to institutions they trust.

While we would also base the centralized coordination of research on NIH's model, it's important not to tie research to a single campus inside the Beltway. That's why an NIE would leverage the expertise we have across the country by creating and overseeing a network of regionally-based, applications-orientated energy innovation institutes that already exist at the nation's research universities, national labs and in the private sector. It would, however coordinate this in Washington to avoid waste and overlap.

Finally, to ensure that NIE is able to carry out its mission without institutional distractions, we would place it nominally in DOE. But just as with NIH, which is part of HHS, we propose providing NIE its own congressional authorization, budgetary authority and staffing autonomy.

Don't take my word it for it.

Even libertarian Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) supports NIH.

Along with 126 of his colleagues, he signed a letter that described NIH as:

[O]ur country's preeminent research institutions, and represent our greatest hope for finding cures and treatments for the chronic diseases and debilitating conditions that afflict millions of Americans. NIH research is also an essential factor in containing soaring medical costs that threaten the viability of our nation's health care system.

The United States needs the same support for new clean energy research and development. We can get it with a National Institutes of Energy.

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