Your predecessor hardly cared for such stuff. Over the last eight years, most federal funding of research was reduced or maintained at the same level (and therefore declined after inflation). Only one area of research really prospered: science and technology with applications in security and defense. Generally, U.S science and technology is suffering.
Consider, for example, research into alternative energy. In testimony before the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming in September, MIT’s president, Susan Hockfield, told legislators that in 1980, 10 percent of federal research dollars went to energy. In 2006, she said, it was less than 3 percent: between $2.4 and $3.4 billion, or less than half the annual R&D budget of the largest North American pharmaceutical company. Hockfield called for Congress to begin by tripling funding for energy research.
You should champion such increases. In the cover story of this issue (see “Sun + Water = Fuel”), Kevin Bullis shows why. He describes a catalyst developed by Daniel Nocera, a professor of chemistry at MIT, that generates oxygen from water, much as plants do during photosynthesis. Bullis writes, “The reaction is the first and most difficult step in splitting water to make hydrogen gas. And that advance, Nocera believes, will help surmount one of the main obstacles preventing solar power from becoming a dominant source of electricity: there’s no cost-effective way to store the energy collected by solar panels.”
This is a tremendous advance: if artificial photosynthesis works at a larger scale, we have clean power. Nocera’s current research is part of a $21.5 million program, funded by the National Science Foundation, that will continue until August 2013. But Nocera has been working on artificial photosynthesis since the early 1980s, and it will take another decade to commercialize his work. If we judge by recent emerging energy technologies, that commercialization will demand hundreds of millions of dollars more. Until venture capitalists have been convinced of the technology’s promise (and potentially for longer, if the financial markets cannot offer an exit strategy to justify VCs’ investment), much of that money must come from the federal government.
Mr. President, please work with Congress to increase research funding. Science and technology can expand human possibilities, but only when they are themselves expansive.