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At WPost, MIT President Calls for Energy Manhattan Project

Following up on her testimony before Congress yesterday, MIT President Susan Hockfield writes in the Washington Post today that the U.S. needs a Manhattan Project-scale investment in renewable energy R&D.

Drawing on the metaphor of Vannevar Bush’s pact between government and science, Hockfield describes that part of the problem is the absence of serious R&D investment from the major energy companies, despite what they might tell us in TV advertisements:

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.


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