Almost 70 years ago, as Germany invaded France, President Franklin D. Roosevelt received an urgent visit from Vannevar Bush, then chairman of the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics and formerly vice president and dean of engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Bush’s message was simple: For America to win the war that was to come, it had no choice but to make aggressive, focused investments in basic science. The case was so compelling that Roosevelt approved it in 10 minutes. From radar to the Manhattan Project, the innovations that decision unleashed produced the military tools that won the war.
That same presidential decision launched the enduring partnership between the federal government and research universities, a partnership that has vastly enhanced America’s military capabilities and security, initiated many important industries, produced countless medical advances and spawned virtually all of the technologies that account for our modern quality of life.
Today, the United States is tangled in a triple knot: a shaky economy, battered by volatile energy prices; world politics weighed down by issues of energy consumption and security; and mounting evidence of global climate change.
Building on the wisdom of Vannevar Bush, I believe we can address all three problems at once with dramatic new federal investment in energy research and development. If one advance could transform America’s prospects, it would be ready access, at scale, to a range of affordable, renewable, low-carbon energy technologies — from large-scale solar and wind energy to safe nuclear power. Only one path will lead to such transformative technologies: research. Yet federal funding for energy research has dwindled to irrelevance. In 1980, 10 percent of federal research dollars went to energy. Today, the share is 2 percent.
Research investment by U.S. energy companies has mirrored this drop. In 2004, it stood at $1.2 billion in today’s dollars. This might suit a cost-efficient, technologically mature, fossil-fuel-based energy sector, but it is insufficient for any industry that depends on innovation. Pharmaceutical companies invest 18 percent of revenue in R&D. Semiconductor firms invest 16 percent. Energy companies invest less than one-quarter of 1 percent. With this pattern of investment, we cannot expect an energy technology revolution.
While industry must support technology development, only government can prime the research pump. Congress must lead.
The potential gains — from the economy to global security to the climate — are boundless. Other nations are also chasing these technologies. We must be first to market with the most innovative solutions. We must make sure that in the energy technology markets of the future, we have the power to invent, produce and sell — not the obligation to buy.
How much should we invest? In 2006 the government spent between $2.4 billion and $3.4 billion (less than half of the annual R&D budget of our largest pharmaceutical company). Many experts, including the Council on Competitiveness, recommend that federal energy research spending climb to twice or even 10 times current levels. In my view, the nation should move promptly to triple current rates, then increase funding further as the Energy Department builds its capacity to convert basic research into marketable technologies.
Vannevar Bush’s insight was his appreciation of the value of basic research in powering innovation. I believe that we stand on the verge of a global energy technology revolution. Will America lead it and reap the rewards? Or will we surrender that advantage to other countries with clearer vision? I believe we can chart a profoundly hopeful, practical path to America’s future — through rapid, sustained, broad-based and intensive investment in basic energy research.
Susan Hockfield is the 16th president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.