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What would happen to science if Mitt won the White House?

House Republican Press Conference on Health Care Reform
I definitely owe my readership this post from a few months back when I was doing a series on the Republican candidates and their viewpoints on scientific research.

My apologies for it being All Quiet on the Blog Front as I prepare to defend and apply for jobs. As a good friend reminded me earlier today: thinking about science policy does, on some strange level, make me happy.

Plus, Romney has pretty much snapped up the nomination and it’s about time we talked a bit about his science stance. Now also the reason that I hadn’t written about this earlier is that it’s pretty difficult to find his thoughts on funding scientific research. But then Paul Ryan and the House Republican Budget came out and this is what Romney said:

Romney: I’m very supportive of the Ryan budget plan. It’s a bold and exciting effort on his part and on the part of the Republicans and it’s very much consistent with what I put out earlier. I think it’s amazing that we have a president who three and a half years in still hasn’t put a proposal out that deals with entitlements. This President’s dealing with entitlement reform — excuse me — this budget deals with entitlement reform, tax policy, which as you know is very similar to the one that I put out and efforts to reign in excessive spending. I applaud it. It’s an excellent piece of work and very much needed.

There has been quite a bit discussed about the large slashes in corporate taxes and government programs that help the poor; but in addition to those detrimental cuts there are also many things in the budget that should be a concern to scientists and those involved in federally funded research.

The Obama Administration specifically listed the programs that involved in science, technology and innovation that the Ryan-Romney budget resolution would cut, with the House Republicans claiming massive duplications, bureaucratic barriers and red tape that are preventing job creation in these sectors.

The House Budget would cut programs within the Department of Energy’s Office of Science that provide the funding for future clean energy technology and advanced manufacturing initiatives. Specifically stating in the Path to Prosperity that renewable-energy interests are only for political gain.

The President has also stifled domestic energy production by blocking or delaying production both onshore and offshore, destroying jobs and idling American energy sources. The stimulus alone allocated $80 billion of taxpayers’ dollars specifically for politically favored renewable-energy interests.

But, in fact, this statement is not true at all, that currently domestic production is at its highest since 2003. This Budget Resolution will reduce the current efforts to develop a clean-energy economy at a time when our international competitors are ramping up their investments. China is the world’s top investor in renewable energy projects investing over $120 billion between 2007-2010.

The House Budget resolution would also be detrimental to agencies like the National Science Foundation (NSF) by cutting the budget of those agencies by almost 10% on average. Cuts to these programs would not only eliminate basic research but as well as education grants and fellowships that help graduate students and postdocs pursue careers in science. OSTP indicates that this would be $670 million below 2012 enacted levels equalling 2,000 fewer competitive grants. But, Path to Prosperity does state that:

This budget would continue funding essential government missions, including energy security and basic research and development, while paring back spending in areas of duplication or non-core functions, such as applied and commercial research or development projects best left to the private sector.

ok, so then my question is where are all of these overflowing private sector investments in research and development and why haven’t they hired me yet? I am a competitive candidate with extensive laboratory skills and I am excited to do cutting-edge research. But what am I doing? I am applying for postdocs. How are postdocs funded? Exactly.

Will the prospect of a clean energy future get our budget passed?

In talking to many people, very few were as excited about the President’s budget rollout as I was. This is probably due to the dim prospects of it actually getting passed this year it being an election year. Well, without going into a debate about whether or not it will fly in Congress, I do want to write a post about it as I think that it clearly showcases the importance that President Obama places on a clean energy economy.  And because of this, I also think that congress should at least consider (at least the R&D side) the budget because if some of the clean energy investments are passed, the benefits will trickle down to their substituents and create more jobs and industries in their own states. The rest of the world is on board with investing in clean energy, why are we not? Although, according to Bloomberg, in 2011, we finally surpassed China in our investments in clean energy with 55.9 billion dollars when China invested 47.4 billion dollars in clean energy. Lets increase this!

I was excited to read that the Department of Energy’s proposed R&D budget for FY 2013 is 11.9 billion, an $884 million increase (8% of 2012 enacted). Within this budget request, specifically for R&D, there is (nearly a) 30% increase ($2.3 million) in the budget for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) Programs, as well as (almost a) 30% increase ($350 million) in the budget for Advance Research Projects Agency in Energy (ARPA-e). I am proud of these increases because energy efficiency programs and efforts are some of the most important things that we can do now to reduce our emissions and save on energy. It it amazing how much economic sense improvements in efficiency can have and yet we consistently under invest in these types of efforts. But, there is a great piece by psychologist Brandon Hofmeister, that perhaps describes the cognitive barrier between knowing that something that makes economic sense and actually doing what makes economic sense. Nonetheless, more efforts to encourage consumers to be energy efficient and for utilities to reward their consumers when they are energy efficient is a very good thing.

Science Outlook – If Newt won the White House

What would science look like if Republicans won the White House in 2012? (Part 1 of 2)After hearing Former Speaker Gingrich’s promise that there will be colonies on the moon by 2020, and then the subsequent parodies by various comedians and Romney, I want to ask: what did you find yourself thinking?

Although I don’t believe that we should go back to the moon to settle colonies, Former Speaker Gingrich’s pandering to the space coast got me thinking about the foundation I had for the stress that with a republican in the White House we would lose all of the momentum in R&D we worked so hard to gain these last 3-4 years.  Where did I get this feeling? Because public debates rarely go into how candidates think about science and research and development.

Now a disclaimer: this post is all speculation based on limited research. I have merely looked into the past decisions, votes, and bills introduced by Gringrich (during the 104th Congress) and cherry picked the legislation that might hint at a passion and interest in science. This post is in no way guaranteeing that this will be the agenda that he will take.  I am only looking for patterns to help guide thinking about the candidates that are bombarding the news cycles.

And of course, the candidate will not be the only one who makes decisions on science, as if he does win the White House, it will also depend on who he will appoint to his cabinet positions and other key science positions. But again, this is just a small list to begin to think about the candidates from the viewpoint of what they can do for science, because R&D is not often talked about in national debates.

Gingrich perhaps was not just pandering to the space coast, but has always found an interest in space policy, since growing up during the space race. In an interview with The Space Review in 2006, he sees a lot of potential in large monetary prizes and tax incentives to encourage businesses and the private sector to be involved. Although many of these partnerships with the private sector are already happening and have been the efforts of the current (Obama) administration.

Energy and the Environment:
This is a bit difficult to tease out as there are instances where Newt has been a proponent of climate change going as far as doing a commercial with Former Speaker Nancy Pelosi in support of Al Gore’s Alliance for Climate Protection and even authoring A Contract with the Earth, a book on green conservatism. However in recent months in during his campaign for the presidency he is on the same side of nearly every other republican candidate, expressing that the commercial was the “dumbest single thing I’ve done in the last few years”.

In addition, his quote about changing the EPA to the Environmental Solutions Agency (ESA) is a bit convoluted as he expresses the need for this agency to work with industry to build incentives rather than punishments. One specific example to keep an eye on is his proposal to incentivize “flex-fuel” vehicles.  However, these types of vehicles would need to broaden beyond just ethanol to not be seen as choosing ethanol as the “winner”.

Former Speaker Gingrich has a very strong commitment to education. He knows that prosperity and national security are tied into education. Although he does rely heavily on the charter school system, but as does Secretary Duncan (interview with Meet the Press).

As an additional disclaimer, this post in no way endorses Newt Gingrich. I just wanted to have a discussion about the speculations on the consequence of science if republicans were to win the White House. Did you catch any other articles I should take a look at? Tomorrow: Mitt Romney, what is the outlook for science if he wins the White House?

Give Clean Tech A Chance

As disappointed as I am with the fate of Solyndra, what I am even more disappointed in is the public and media’s immediate response to take this example as the penultimate example as the Administration going about clean tech the wrong way. Wrong in that we are investing in it at all with “precious tax dollars”.We do not need this now. We already do not have the push we need to invest heavily in Clean Energy Technology so that it can be deployed widely as well as the incentives to fund research in these technologies that will make a difference and alleviate our dependence on oil.

I decided to add my blog to the plea/screams/challenge made in David Roberts’ great piece in Grist. What he said scares me:

“What Solyndra gives them is a symbol, something to use as a stand-in to discredit not just the DOE loan program, but all government support for clean energy and indeed clean energy itself.”

Seeing the relationship to “Climategate”, Roberts’ says this:

“This left the field entirely open to a massive attack from the right, coordinated among ideological media, staffers, lobbyists, and pols. When the left finally stirred itself to action, all that emerged were a bunch of long, boring investigations into the details and good-faith efforts to be fair about how both sides a point.”

So then I thought to myself then, why are we, clean energy and environment advocates, not louder! Here, I am adding my voice. Because this is important. We cannot stop these investments. (Granted, we should invest in a company that adapts, how can installing individual glass tubes be cost effective?! That’s another story. It was innovative, I might give them that.) But in order to avoid Solyndra to be the symbol of failed clean technology, I add my voice.  We cannot have that happen. Now, all of the the clean energy technology companies that the Administration has supported is being called into question. The media measuring their success based purely on job numbers and calling out the potential influences of campaign support of these other energy technologies.

I bring up this question, since just 2 months ago, we said “good-bye” to our space shuttle program: Did we not back the $200 billion investment in the space shuttle program?  We did. Adamantly.

There is always a risk with new technologies. For a program meant to make spaceflight cheap and frequent, there were 131 shuttle missions flown between 1982 – 2010 and two tragic disasters. And yet, the American taxpayers, after 30 years, are devastated by its end.

Solar Dynamic Laboratory - final launch preparations underway

NASA Solar Dynamic Laboratory

Why can we not give Clean Energy the same chance? We became attached to space exploration and everyday use the materials and science that came out of the research to get us there. But why is it not the same for Clean Energy Technology? Do you not find it strange that we are not as attached to protecting our current home when we have not even found a new home yet?!
There still continues to be many many defendants of space exploration, and I am one of them, but why are the advocates of clean energy/alternative energies not as adamant?

“Both the American public and policymakers should recognize that spaceflight programs represent a “risky, expensive and long-term commitment,” Pielke said. He also emphasized the need to design programs with greater flexibility than the shuttle and station, so that the programs could evolve based on changing circumstances.”

Despite the risk and setback significant funds are going to research and in educating the next generation of engineers to take us to space. I don’t understand why there isn’t the same fight and same excitement in new energy technology. What is so different?

Many argue that the benefits of space flight that cannot be measured in dollars. I feel that this is the same for energy. How can you measure cleaner air and healthier people? An energy security in which we are not at war over resources that are limited? An economy that thrives due to new innovation.

The Things They Carried

“Mobility is freedom and progress.” – Bill Ford, TED talk, TED2011

This post is to shed a bit of light on the extent of our fuel dependency that you might not hear about everyday. Until recently, I also did not realize how the energy needs of our vehicles, communication devices, GPS, computers, and robots impacted our military. Plus, the other reason for discussing this issue and the strategies that the Army and Marines are doing to decrease their energy demand is that we are in the throws of another budget/debt ceiling debate in Congress. And what are we spending a majority of tax payer money on besides Medicare and Social Security? Defense. And that, as I hope to outline, is also an energy and environment matter.

The Department of Defense (DOD) R&D budget proposal for the FY 2012 is $77.8 billion. The DOD knows what it should be working on with this funding: Energy. And they are doing so for two reasons: 1.) to lighten the load in which our troops carry, a minimum of 20 pounds of which are the seven types of batteries being carried in addition to their gear and 2.) to save the resources and personnel required to protect convoys that transport fuel.  There are a number of reasons why our energy demands are detrimental to our military. Cost: the Government Accountability Office has the DOD spending at least $2.1 billion on power sources between 2006 and 2010. Danger: the weight of the batteries cause physical harm to the soldiers, perhaps even long-term, not to mention decreasing the effectiveness of these soldiers in combat. Strategic: Where does the fuel come from? It is transported, like many other supplies, through hazardous, mine-infested roads. You can see how maintaining the upper hand on our adversaries while gaining the necessary energy to have that advantage is a logistical nightmare.

An important start is to get better data on the DOD energy use. There is information about how much was purchased, but not information about where it is used. In the works are more automated energy-measurement systems to collect better data and be able to analyze where the most energy use is taking place.

Second is to develop centralized and standardized power that is reliably distributed. This can decrease the reliance on batteries as well as decrease the number of different batteries in which soldiers carry. One of the problems with rechargeable gadgets (and we all experience this with our devices at home) is that each requires specific chargers and batteries. Standardized power would also be much more adaptive and establish legacy systems. A majority of the DOD’s equipment like tanks and aircrafts are quite old. There needs to be considerations about the reliability and legacy of the new vehicles. What energy source are we going to use? And the vehicles that we build, will they use the same source 50 years from now? 70 years from now?

Many of the efforts that the DOD is deploying for decreasing its energy demand can also be done at the national level. Perhaps the problems do not seem has immediate as that of the military (protecting the lives of our troops and not placing them in unnecessarily in harms way); however still urgent. 1.) data acquisition: where can we decrease our energy use? The need for real time data. This is one of the most important things that we can do. Last week the White House hosted an event unveiling the policy for modernizing our grid system. At the event, they had two high school students who had sysytems installed that monitored the energy use of their school. They were able to decrease the schools energy use by 13 percent and a 250 percent return on investment! If two high school students can do this! Surely the rest of the Nation can too!  2.) Standardization: finding the systems that are competitive so that the convenience, efficiency, and confidence we have in disposable batteries doesn’t win. 3.) Entire life-cycle cost considerations: thinking about legacy systems in the context of the environmental implications involved in the energy systems that we employ.

The TED talk I linked at the start of this post is great example of thinking about sustainability through out the entire network or system. It is not enough to just have energy efficiency vehicles but to also have our energy using gadgets with the ability to anticipate and communicate with each other so that we are not expending energy when we are idle.

More Reading:

National Defense Magazine May 2011

Green Driving

Prius power On Wednesday, the deputy assistant to the president for energy and climate change, Heather Zichal, gave her support for Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn)’s  Electric Vehicles Bill (S. 948), saying that it could be a means for moving and generating bipartisan energy legislation. Although it may seem like going electric is a win for the environment, the push for more electric cars may reduce our dependence on fuel but it will not necessarily decrease our carbon footprint.

As we are look to develop and deploy plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEV), there are emissions associated to the additional electricity that will be needed for the vehicles. Therefore, what is also needed is a new policy for the power sector to be able to supply low-carbon emission electricity. I was happy to see, also at the start of this week, a white paper released by the Brookings Institution that outlines a proposal for the National Clean Energy Standard that encourages power distributors to adopt, buy or generate their own power through a variety of low-emissions technology in order to meet the outlined standard. This type of technology-neutral approach is interesting and perhaps much more palatable than cap and trade because the system would, for example, allow for a coal plant to be rewarded if it was able to outfit itself with carbon capture technology or any other means to increase its efficiency.

Another means in which electric cars have an impact on our environment through means we may not realize are the battery materials in electric cars. There have been several studies published in Environmental Science and Technology journal assessing the life-cycle of the batteries in plug-in hybrid vehicles and battery electric vehicles. Most recently, Ander Hammer StrØmman from Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) published such a paper looking generally at Lithium-Ion and Nickel Metal Hydride Batteries (NiMH) (currently the type of battery in the Toyota Prius in the US). This study is unique in that the authors focus their comparitive unit on the amount of energy charged and then discharged by the battery – eliminating factors such as powertrain and driving cycle that is normally assumed when the unit is driving distance or range – thereby solely looking at the environmental impact of the battery.The authors found that with the exception of ozone depletion potential, Nickel Metal Hydride battery had the highest environmental impact. They rationalize that the greater efficiency of the Li-ion attributes to its lower environmental impact, with 2-3 times more storage over its lifetime. In addition, Li-ion batteries uses earth abundant materials. However, where the greatest technological improvement is needed is in the manufacturing energy requirements; for all three batteries that accounted for 97% of the ozone depletion/global warming potential.

It is a great start to want to widely deploy electric vehicles as they do have the potential to decrease emissions. However, policy may want to focus not just on the emissions of the vehicle when consumers are driving and charging but also include the environmental impact during the vehicles entire life cycle. I have only focused specifically on the battery component as that is where I see the most chemistry. But there are a number of aspects that can be improved in order for these green vehicles to be as green as they can be.

Field Emission SEM of Ni-Co-Mn Hydroxide
Image taken by Argonne scientist improving Li-ion battery technology. Images like this help to better understand what is going on at the nanoscale in order to develop new materials.