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Weighing the Cost of Big Science

Policymakers are fallible judges of the risk and return of technology investments.
September 22, 2015

In my story on advances in smaller-scale, privately funded fusion reactor projects last week (“Finally, Fusion Takes Small Steps Toward Reality”), I stated that “Companies like Tri Alpha offer a path to fusion paved not with taxpayer dollars but with private-sector money—which ultimately is the only way to actually get something built.”

I considered that statement rather innocuous, but many readers disagreed, going so far as to call it “libertarian claptrap.” The advances I wrote about, said BarryG, “were EXACTLY only possible because they were very LITERALLY paved with taxpayer R&D.”

For the record, I didn’t say that only private-sector money is needed to bring new energy technologies, like fusion, to market; it’s undeniable that decades of taxpayer funding have been necessary to get the basic research to the point where companies like Tri Alpha and General Fusion can pursue newer approaches that could, plausibly, attract private sector investment. Both are essential; one will never work without the other. The key is defining the inflection point, at which the technology is mature enough and demand is robust enough to create a viable market that’s attractive to investors seeking a reasonable return. Any market dependent on long-term government support to sustain itself was never really a viable market in the first place. The trick is clearly defining “long-term.”

Actually, as Daniel Gross writes in Slate, the private sector is increasingly willing to fund ambitious clean-energy projects. Consider, for example, the $5 billion Chokecherry and Sierra Madre Wind Energy Project under development in Wyoming by billionaire Philip Anschutz, and the accompanying TransWest Express, a high-voltage transmission line from the Rockies to Southern California that would cost another $3 billion.

By definition, though, Big Science, like fusion and curing cancer, entails massive multi-decade endeavors that promise returns in the distant future, if ever. Only government can support that kind of basic R&D. And as Steven Weinberg, the winner of the 1979 Nobel Prize in Physics, observed in an important 2012 essay in the New York Review of Books, that support is drying up: as the questions about the nature of the universe become trickier and trickier, and breakthroughs become rarer, and the equipment needed to achieve them gets bigger and more complex (see, for example, the Large Hadron Collider, the biggest of Big Science projects), the willingness of the public and politicians to pay for them dwindles. “I do not believe that we can make significant progress [in elementary particle physics] without also pushing back the frontier of high energy,” wrote Weinberg. “So in the next decade we may see the search for the laws of nature slow to a halt, not to be resumed again in our lifetimes.”

The counterarguments can be stated succinctly: “How can you spend billions on finding some invisible particle that will never benefit anyone, when billions of people live without electricity, clean water, and protection from infectious diseases?”

Exhibit A in this counterargument could be the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. With close to $10 billion spent and no tangible results in sight, the Ignition Facility, as Bill Sweet wrote in IEEE Spectrum magazine in 2012, is “the mother of all boondoggles.” Yet it trundles along, consuming hundreds of millions of dollars and countless scientist-hours each year, bringing delight to its congressional supporters but not much to anyone else.

By comparison, federal support for fusion research looks like a bargain. Since 1953, the U.S. government has spent about $30 billion on fusion energy science (a figure that includes the National Ignition Facility). That’s half a billion or so a year—about the cost of a single stealth bomber. Given that fusion could, one day, provide a limitless source of carbon-free energy, that’s probably still a good investment. At some point, though, private investment is going to be needed to commercialize a fusion reactor. If the ambitions of the companies I wrote about are well-founded, that could happen in the next 10 years. Or it could happen in our grandchildren’s lifetime. Or, maybe, never. Major investments in basic scientific research are always, on some level, a gamble on the future.

We spent about $22.5 billion, in 2014 dollars, on the Manhattan Project, to combat a threat to the future of liberal democracy worldwide. (Blogger Mitchell Howe has proposed the adoption of a new unit, the MP, for spending on huge public projects: one-quarter of 1 percent of U.S. GDP, or about $45 billion in 2015. So to date we’ve spent less than 1 MP on fusion research.) It’s increasingly clear that climate change is threat of similar magnitude. Today we spend less than half of what we spent in the 1980s on fusion research, adjusted for inflation—even though, as I describe in my story, the technology is, for the first time, showing signs of nearing commercial reality. Just shutting down the National Ignition Facility and redirecting those funds to some of the smaller-scale, innovative types of fusion being developed by private-sector companies would be a huge boost to the technology. And it would encourage more investors to back R&D that might, one day, actually produce electricity for customers.

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