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Summary:

Here’s the key message from Energy Secretary Steve Chu when he spoke at the National Press Club Monday: We’re screwed if we don’t boost our R&D investments in science and technology. The message isn’t new, but there’s a new sense of urgency.

Sputnik

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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  1. garth huckabee Monday, November 29, 2010

    You know I have applied to a number of grants with no useful response. There is a way to make power on a global scale with current technologies and the only problem is that it costs money. I have even gone to as far as to write senators, representatives, the secretary of the interior and the director of the department of energy. The concept is called solar barge:floating solar array. A patented system which I have worked over three years on and it works. It is the same technology used in arizona, new mexico and nevada simply put on the ocean. It has massive potential as well as numerous applications without damaging the environment or having massive construction and upkeep costs like any ocean wind farm. Hopefully, someone starts listening.

  2. I’m a fan of Chu, have deep respect for the guy, but I have to say I don’t find him an effective communicator. He held a conference call with bloggers after his press club speech and I found it disappointing. He rambled, didn’t offer much of anything new, and in my view doesn’t understand the greater need we (I say “we” more from a North American perspective) have to deploy technologies we already have and which show great promise. There’s an enormous amount of great R&D going on already. I’m not convinced that’s what’s lacking. When he compares the U.S. to China, the scarier measurement is how China is moving ahead more aggressively with demonstration and deployment.

    1. I agree that there is a great need to deploy promising technologies, and the cash grant and loan guarantee programs are helping some of these technologies to reach the mass market. I believe Chu was talking about committing long-term policies to invest in R&D. He noted that the U.S. is still a leader in innovation, so, like you said, there is an enormous amount of great R&D going on still. But China is able to move aggressively with demonstration and deployment because it’s got long-term plans and money to accelerate R&D to reach demo/deployment more quickly. To keep up, we, too, need to commit more money, or else we’ll be outpaced.

  3. Energy and food are the keys to the future. Those that control those two items will truly be in charge of their destiny. Chu has hit the nail on the head. I hope our leaders (on both sides) will be able to see through the politics and realize the importance of this to our future.

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