From: The New York Times
October 12, 2010
Build ’Em and They’ll Come
By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN
Kishore Mahbubani, the dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, is over for tea and I am telling him about what I consider to be the most exciting, moon-shot-quality, high-aspiration initiative proposed by President Obama that no one has heard of. It’s a plan to set up eight innovation hubs to solve the eight biggest energy problems in the world. But I explain that the program has not been fully funded yet because Congress, concerned about every dime we spend these days, is reluctant to appropriate the full $25 million for each center, let alone for all eight at once, so only three are moving ahead. But Kishore interrupts me midsentence.
“You mean billion,” he asks? “No,” I say. “We’re talking about $25 million.” “Billion,” he repeats. “No. Million,” I insist.
The Singaporean is aghast. He simply can’t believe that at a time when his little city-state has invested more than a billion dollars to make Singapore a biomedical science hub and attract the world’s best talent, America is debating about spending mere millions on game-changing energy research.
Welcome to Tea Party America. Think small and carry a big ego.
This may seem like a little issue, but it is not. Nations thrive or languish usually not because of one big bad decision, but because of thousands of small bad ones — decisions where priorities get lost and resources misallocated so that the nation’s full potential can’t be nurtured and it ends up being less than the sum of its parts. That is my worry for America.
But none of this is inevitable. So let’s start with the good news: a shout-out for Obama’s energy, science and technology team for thinking big. Soon after taking office, they proposed what Energy Secretary Steven Chu calls “a series of mini-Manhattan projects.” In the fiscal year 2010 budget, the Department of Energy requested financing for “Energy Innovation Hubs” in eight areas: smart grid, solar electricity, carbon capture and storage, extreme materials, batteries and energy storage, energy efficient buildings, nuclear energy, and fuels from sunlight.
In each area, universities, national labs and private industry were invited to put together teams of their best scientists and research ideas to win $25 million a year for five years, to, as Chu put it, “accelerate the normal progress of science and technology for energy research” and thereby “discover and commercialize the energy breakthroughs we need” and thereby spawn new jobs and industries.
So far Congress has appropriated partial funding — “up to $22 million” but probably less — for three of these hubs for one year. So Penn State and two national labs will develop energy efficient building designs. Oak Ridge National Laboratory will lead a team to model new nuclear reactors, and the California Institute of Technology and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory will work on revolutionary ways to generate fuels from sunlight. Chu is now trying to persuade Congress to finance those three again for 2011, as well as at least one more: batteries.
In my view, Congress should be funding all eight right now for five years — $1 billion — so that we not only get graduate students, knowing the research money is there, flocking to these new energy fields but we get the benefit of all these scientists collaborating and cross-fertilizing.
Chu, who holds a Nobel Prize in physics, says he understands and respects that Congress has to make tough budgeting choices today, so I cannot get him to utter one word of criticism about our lawmakers’ spending priorities. But he waxes eloquent about what it would mean for American innovation if we could actually fully pay for this focused moon shot on energy.
The idea behind the hubs, explained Chu, is to “capture the same spirit” that produced radar and the first nuclear bomb. That is, “get Nobel Prize winners in physics working side by side with engineers” — not to produce an academic paper but “to solve a problem in a way that will actually be deployed” and do it much faster than the traditional academic model of everyone working in their own silo.
“We don’t want incremental improvements,” said Chu. “We want real leaps — game-changing” breakthroughs — like a 75 percent reduction in energy used in a commercial building through affordable design and software improvements. “America has shown we can do this,” concluded Chu. “The scientists and engineers see the problem; they see the opportunity; they see what is at stake, and they want to help.” That is why we should fully fund all eight now.
All of this reminds me of my favorite business quote from a consultant who had worked for the German technology giant, Siemens. He said: “If Siemens only knew what Siemens knows, it would be a rich company.” Ditto America. We still have all the right stuff. The president’s instinct to push out the boundaries of energy science is spot on, but Congress has to think big, too, and help unlock and scale everything that America knows. Please, please: Stop lavishing money on repaving old roads and pinching pennies when it comes to pioneering new frontiers.