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MIT Technology Review

From the President

Planting the Seeds for Clean Energy

December 22, 2008

This issue of Technology Review launches a series focusing on “big questions” in research. The timing is apt; it’s hard to remember when the United States itself faced so many big questions. We have much to do, with sharply limited resources. Of the tasks at hand, however, I believe that among the most important but least appreciated is to expand energy research–an investment that would help revive our economy, improve our security, and turn the tide on climate change.

America’s future depends on its ability to spark an energy revolution–and that revolution depends on a sustained federal commitment to energy research.

As we know at MIT, innovative scientific or technical solutions that reach the marketplace represent the flowering of research seeds planted years or even decades before. In the last quarter-­century, America has reaped the rewards of two innovation revolutions, one in information technology and the other in biotechnology. These revolutions launched entirely new industries, created millions of jobs, vastly improved our overall productivity, and produced many of the technologies that account for our modern quality of life. Neither would have been possible without federally funded basic research.

If we aim for a future better than the present, we need to develop a range of clean, renewable, low-carbon energy technologies and to deploy them at a scale large enough to power our cars, buildings, and industries. There is only one route to those technologies: research. Yet federal funding for energy research has over decades dwindled to the point of irrelevance. In 1980, 10 percent of federal research dollars went to energy. Today, when we really need energy answers, it is an embarrassing 2 percent.

Unfortunately, research investment by U.S. energy companies also falls desperately short. From 1988 to 2003, the energy industry invested on average less than 0.25 percent of annual revenues in R&D, a level completely out of step with research spending in industries that depend on innovation. For comparison, the pharmaceutical industry invests 18 percent of revenues in R&D; the semiconductor industry invests 16 percent. And while we welcome the recent surge in “green” venture funding, those investments flow not to revolutionary research but to ideas that are almost ready for market–the very last phase of the “D” in R&D. While industry must support development and commercialization, only government can prime the pump of research.

As members of the MIT community, we are well positioned to understand the value of investing in an energy revolution and to advocate for it everywhere–from the halls of Congress, where I spoke on these subjects this fall, to our local communities. I invite you to join me in urging our government leaders to choose this path to a brighter future. Together, we can help make sure that in tomorrow’s energy technology markets, we will have the power to invent, produce, and sell, not the obligation to buy.