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Steven Chu Defends Federal Research Against Know-Nothing Critics

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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I’m upset with Barack Obama for his soft treatment of bankers and other potential campaign donors and his callous treatment of civilians killed in U.S. drone attacks. But President Obama has done a few things right, notably making Steven Chu Secretary of Energy. Last week, the Nobel-winning physicist came to Stevens Institute of Technology, where I teach—and where we were inaugurating a new president—and gave a spirited defense of federal investment in research and development.

Republican lawmakers have been bashing Chu for his 2009 approval of a $535 million guaranteed federal loan to Solyndra, a solar-energy firm that declared bankruptcy last month. Some Congressional Tea Partiers also favor slashing government spending on all non-military research and development. In his talk at Stevens, Chu argued that the federal government can and must help nurture scientific innovation, which historically has been crucial to our economic prosperity.

Abraham Lincoln—a Republican!—recognized this fact. Chu pointed out that during the American Civil War, which obviously strained the federal budget, President Lincoln still set aside funds to found the National Academy of Sciences and the first land-grant colleges, which educated students in agriculture, science and engineering. Lincoln also initiated funding for the construction of the nation’s (and world’s) first transcontinental railroad, which private rail firms had balked at building. Completed in 1870, the railroad shrunk the time of a cross-country trip from six months to two weeks.

Yes, two private entrepreneurs, the Wright Brothers, invented the first flying machine in 1903. But the U.S. government, Chu said, helped nurture the nascent American airplane industry in subsequent decades by buying planes for the U.S. Army and Postal Service and by imposing safety regulations on airplanes, which helped consumers trust this revolutionary new form of transportation.

Today, we clearly need new technologies to help us curb global warming, Chu said. Leaders in only two major industrial countries, he added, continue to resist recognizing global warming as a serious threat. One is Russia, which depends on oil exports for revenue—and whose leaders apparently think, Chu quipped, that their country might benefit from a little warming. The other is the U.S., where denial of global warming has become virtually a platform plank of the Republican Party (that’s my phrasing, not that of Chu, who is too tactful to say such things).

China, India, Germany and other countries are investing heavily in R&D on alternatives to fossil fuels; if the U.S. fails to do likewise, Chu said, we will end up importing rather than exporting cheap new energy technologies. Chu flashed a chart showing that the price of solar energy has dropped precipitously in recent decades. If the price can be pushed down to the level of fossil fuels or lower, solar energy “will go viral,” Chu said, spreading rapidly around the globe without any further government assistance.

Chu is excited by DOE-funded research in photo-voltaic cells, bio-fuels, batteries and carbon-capture technologies. He showed us diagrams of a capture method involving carbonic anhydrases, enzymes with which our bodies break down carbon dioxide. Researchers have produced more effective forms of these anhydrases through “directed evolution” experiments, which yield many different versions of the enzyme and select those that meet a desired criterion. “Really cool stuff is being invented in the U.S.,” Chu said.

Chu hasn’t given up on nuclear energy, in spite of the Fukushima disaster earlier this year in Japan, but he suggested that the era of gigantic nuclear plants might be over. Bigger plants were supposed to benefit from economies of scale, Chu said, but they turned out to be extremely costly and complex and hence susceptible to unpredictable problems. Chu proposed that economies of scale could be achieved through numbers rather than size via small, mass-produced reactors. (My pro-nuclear buddy Rod Adams, who has advocated the mini-reactor approach, will be thrilled to hear this.)

Government investments in technology, Chu said, are inherently risky, just like science itself. Chu recalled that when he was a graduate student, he pursued three dead-end projects before he finally completed a successful experiment (which confirmed a prediction of electroweak theory). This proportion of several “failures” for every success has been typical of his career as a researcher, Chu said. In other words, failures like Solyndra are the price we inevitably pay for investing in innovation. If we don’t fail now and then, we aren’t trying hard enough.

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

John Horgan About the Author: Every week, hockey-playing science writer John Horgan takes a puckish, provocative look at breaking science. A teacher at Stevens Institute of Technology, Horgan is the author of four books, including The End of Science (Addison Wesley, 1996) and The End of War (McSweeney's, 2012). Follow on Twitter @Horganism.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. outsidethebox 2:38 pm 10/17/2011

    The Chinese build alternative energy equipment to sell to others foolish enough to buy it. For themselves they build two coal fired power plants per week.

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  2. 2. bigbopper 3:16 pm 10/17/2011

    Whoa! Talk about a biased post! The Chinese have been making enormous investments in alternative energy for themselves and will shortly surpass us as the country with the most installed wind energy in the world. You must have forgotten to include that in your post.

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  3. 3. rjvg50 5:26 pm 10/17/2011

    “Chu-ie you are doing a hell of a job”. Stick a fork in him. A $1/2 BILLION fork in him. He is, in theory an administrator of a budget that he screwed up in a public fashion and therefore unfit to administer his budget. Smart guy. Just about 1/3 less smart as he thought he was though.

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  4. 4. Cogitari 6:09 pm 10/17/2011

    Sorry, but Solyndra was a classic example of a boondoggle: government funding production without actually solving the core problem(s). In the case of solar it is simple: the price per KWH over the lifetime of the system (including things like maintenance) has to be competitive with existing electricity generation. The money thrown away on Solyndra would have been much better spent on research into actually solving this problem, even if some of it went to ideas that had little chance of success. At least we would have gotten something for our money: an increase in our knowledge. All we got from this was something pretty much everyone should know by now: politicians cannot be trusted with our money when their own self-interest gets involved.

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