DOE Chief: U.S. Is in Trouble Without More Energy R&D


Department of Energy Secretary Steve Chu has a message for you: We’re screwed if we don’t boost our R&D investments in science and technology. He spoke at the National Press Club on Monday, and reiterated a message that’s quite common from his speeches over the past two years, but said there’s a new sense of urgency now that empowered Republicans have vowed to dramatically cut federal spending.

In his talk, “Is the Energy Race Our New ‘Sputnik’ Moment?,” Chu said countries such as China have replaced Russia as the biggest threats to U.S. dominance in science. These countries are gaining economic and political clout rapidly on the international stage because of their willingness to invest heavily in scientific research and to do so with long-term policies in place.

“I think time is running out. We shouldn’t lose sight of this, and federal support for science R&D will be critical for our economic competitiveness,” Chu said.

Chu spoke on the day when the White House’s Office of Science and Technology issued a report recommending an annual spending of $16 billion in energy research and development, which would be a big boost from the current annual average spending of $5 billion. The speech also happened on the day when President Obama announced a proposal to freeze wages and salaries for federal workers, a move that raises questions about the government’s ability to attract talents to work for the DOE and the network of national labs that play a critical role in energy research.

The federal government has spent billions of dollars over the past two years to support research as well as demonstration and even commercial projects in a variety of energy-related industries, including renewable power, electric grid upgrades, electric cars and their batteries, biofuels and a host of technologies to reduce energy use in office buildings and homes. The largess came from the stimulus package that aimed to rescue the ailing economy, and its various programs are coming to an end.

It’s highly unlikely that lawmakers will approve similar spending, particularly given the takeover of the House of Representatives by Republicans as a result of the November election. The new political landscape is prompting exercises to prioritize what issues are worth fighting for and what could be let go among lawmakers, the administration and lobbyists.

Chu didn’t say how much money the DOE should receive for research and development. He noted that the country’s $5.1 billion spending for energy-related R&D in 2010 is about 0.14 percent of the overall federal budget ($3.6 trillion). He cited numbers showing that only 0.3 percent of the sales in the energy industry went to fund public and private R&D in 2007.

“These recovery funds are important down payments for what we have to do. The real question is, after the recovery act, you can’t spend at that rate. We are looking hard at how to use our precious resources in the future. It’s a nonpartisan issue, it’s all about economic prosperity,” Chu said.

The $16 billion annual spending recommended by the White House’s Office of Science and Technology mirrored the one from the American Energy Innovation Council, a private group consisted of well-known names in the tech business, such as Bill Gates, GE’s CEO Jeff Immelt and Kleiner Perkins partner John Doerr. The council members have used their celebrity status to promote its recommendations in recent months.

In his speech, Chu also pointed to progress that China has made that makes it a formidable competitor. China moved from 14th to 2nd place in published research articles in less than 15 years (the U.S. is No. 1). Eight out of 10 global companies with the largest R&D budgets have research centers in China or India or both. Applied Materials, a Silicon Valley stalwart, recently opened the world’s largest private solar research facility in China, Chu said.

China’s two top universities, Tsinghua and Peking, also happen to supply the most foreign students who get Ph.D.s in the U.S. Many of these students return to China because they couldn’t stay legally to work after they’ve completed their education. But changing the country’s immigration policy to accommodate these graduates will involve a tough fight.

“They come to the United States to get an education because the research in the United States is still the best in the world. But if they go back, then we lose a great deal,” Chu said.

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