Doing Hard Time in Fossil Fuel Prisons: Is Public Investment in R&D Un-American?

06/17/2011 04:00 pm ET | Updated Aug 17, 2011
  • Robert Walther Senior Policy Advisor, Third Way’s Clean Energy Program

The June 15 House Science, Space and Technology Committee hearing (PDF) on federal energy programs smacked of science fiction. A government agency is actually doing its job. Fuel for cars made from sunlight, wind turbines that could be suspended in the air like kites on their own power, a method to capture carbon dioxide based on the human lung; all are possibilities that the Department of Energy (DOE) is helping explore.

These technologies, which ten years ago were barely even dreams, are now being actively researched and tested by some of the most brilliant scientists in the country, thanks in part to federal investments from the DOE. If just one of these projects becomes viable, we would bear witness to a new global energy age, with American companies leading the way. The country would benefit from new jobs, increased tax revenues to lower the budget deficit and cleaner power.

But to hear members of the House Majority tell it, you would think that programs like DOE's Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-e) were somehow un-American. Their position begs the question, when did it become sound policy to sling mud at serious research and science?

Unfortunately, the kind of thinking that automatically questions potential breakthrough innovations helps keep the country a virtually captive audience to fossil fuels. It is, after all, a conservative tenet that we should empower individuals to determine what is in their own best interest. Very few things would empower American individualism more than providing energy choices and leaving it up to the consumer to decide which is best for them.

Detractors of DOE programs hide behind soundbites about letting the market will pick winners and losers. They argue that public investment crowds out private sector funding. They also suggest that industry will eventually get around to developing these new technologies if they are really necessary. But as noted in the hearing yesterday, ARPA-e's projects have generated over $285 million in follow-on private funding and have already resulted in 17 patents filed. Put simply, public funding is empowering private investment and market creation.

When has America ever put its best interest on hold to wait for market failures to sort themselves out? Would we have nuclear energy if the government had not intervened to harness the power of the atom? Would we have an Internet if the Pentagon had not funded its predecessor ARPAnet? Would we even have a thriving American West if the federal government had not engaged in public-private partnerships with the railroad companies to create transcontinental rail lines?

America sent a man to the moon, created the modern commercial aviation industry, developed the automobile, and launched modern telecommunications. If we can build a better mousetrap, or in this case a better power plant, then we should by all means put the funds into researching how to get there. The Department of Energy's R&D programs are providing the basic and applied research needed to move our nation forward into a new era of energy. Abandoning public investments in research and development ignores 100 years of success.