Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Energy Push Spurs Shift in U.S. Science

By GAUTAM NAIK, The Wall Street Journal

OAK RIDGE, Tenn. -- The Obama administration's push to solve the nation's energy problems, a massive federal program that rivals the Manhattan Project, is spurring a once-in-a-generation shift in U.S. science.

The government's multibillion-dollar push into energy research is reinvigorating 17 giant U.S.-funded research facilities, from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory here to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California. After many years of flat budgets, these labs are ramping up to develop new electricity sources, trying to build more-efficient cars and addressing climate change.

In fiscal 2009, the Obama administration increased the funding by 18%, to $4.76 billion, to the Department of Energy's Office of Science, which oversees 10 national labs and funds research at another seven. The office will receive $1.6 billion in government stimulus spending, as well, much of which it will also channel to these laboratories.

The Office of Science estimates its bigger budget allowed it to create nearly 1,400 research jobs at the 10 labs it oversees in the fiscal year ending in September, up 11% from the previous year's staffing levels. It estimates it created another 1,400 science jobs at universities. In addition, it says, funds from the Obama administration's stimulus package created hundreds more government lab jobs. As a result, the balance of U.S. science is shading a few degrees -- away from the pure research typically practiced at universities, and toward applied science.

These efforts mark a third wave of spending at national labs such as Oak Ridge, a vast complex of woods and research facilities not far from Knoxville, Tenn. Oak Ridge was one of three labs set up to help build the atomic bomb during World War II. It boomed again during America's energy-independence push in the 1970s.

Oak Ridge plans to increase its staff by 25%, or 800 positions, over the next 18 months -- even as its neighbor, the University of Tennessee, has lost state funding and pared back faculty searches.

"We have a renewed sense of mission and urgency," says Oak Ridge's director, Thom Mason.

Critics of big government say the Obama energy plan gives politicians too big a role in how the nation conducts science, just as they fret about the government's increased role in the financial sector. They also question whether the government's funding push is sustainable amid mounting budget deficits.

Others, in academics and industry, say that while government-funded research has made big gains, including advances in DNA mapping and magnetic-resonance imaging, the cost of administering such research is unnecessarily high. University-funded pure research has its own string of successes in areas from physics and chemistry to biomedicine and genetics, they say, including breakthroughs that led to the laser, pacemaker, ultrasound technology and rocket fuel.

"Most of our great breakthroughs have not been through [top-down government] funding," says Michael Witherell, a former head of the government-funded Fermilab and now vice chancellor for research at the University of California in Santa Barbara. balance of article


mihaialexandrupop said...

If we think that after Pearl Harbor US put its might industry into running the war - which undoubtedly did (course we need to mention the similar large Russian effort, put mostly into cheap production), then we have at least one precedent where the might of US industry can be put in the forefront of development (now China takes the place of the cheap producer). So why wouldn't we consider the current ecological step as a crucial point, and US can fully benefit from the eco/energy industry revival.

Richard Wottrich said...

I agree with your observation. A large scale shift in technology can initiate a wave of innovation. The US effort by government to prime the pump can be beneficial, unless misdirected by politics and corruption. The IT technology wave when viewed as a whole was probably a bad overall investment - but we profited from the winners changing our world - Intel, Microsoft and so on.