A View from Jason Pontin
Dear Mr. President
Like snowflakes upon a sea, and as little regarded, are letters to a new president.
Frustrated former presidents, fretfully retired statesmen, and senators ambitious to sit in your cabinet want you to enjoy their wisdom. Ordinary citizens take to their keyboards, as befits a democracy. Captains of industry, those proud alumni of the Polytechnic of Life, are determined to level with you. Even intellectuals–scientists, economists, and, Someone forgive us, magazine editors–feel the solemn duty to buttonhole you about what you must do in the first months of your administration.
Wired magazine devoted its October issue to “a Smart List of 15 Wired people with big ideas about how to fix the things that need fixing.” More selectively, we have asked three éminences of science and technology to advise you. (Letters from Ernest Moniz, the director of the MIT Energy Initiative; John Halamka, the chief information officer of Harvard Medical School; and Charles Vest, MIT president emeritus.) All try to make action urgent and its nature clear.
As will I. Whoever you are, you will have pressing demands upon your attention. As I write in mid-October, a burst financial bubble appears to be leading to a global crisis of liquidity. You must fight two protracted wars. The very weather frightens. And at home and abroad there is a general malaise about the American project: to many, the United States, which Ronald Reagan, echoing Lincoln, often called “the last, best hope of man on earth,” seems to have become one of the ordinary nations.
The promotion of science and technology must feel very far from your priorities. But encouraging America’s scientists and technologists is essential to the well-being of your fellow citizens and (insofar as the United States has been the world’s wellspring of research and development) of everyone alive.
It was so before. In the 20th century, U.S. achievement in science, engineering, and medicine “protected our nation’s security, fueled most of our economic growth, and nearly doubled our life span,” Chuck Vest writes. “It sent us to the moon, fed the planet, brought world events into our living rooms, established instant worldwide communications, gave rise to ubiquitous new forms of art and entertainment, uncovered the workings of our natural world, and gave us freedom of travel by air, sea, and land.”
Science and technology may astonish the 21st century, and they can help solve many of the problems you face; but they will flourish only if the federal government funds long-term discovery research. Venture capitalists and entrepreneurs will develop the most commercial discoveries; but the discoveries are the fruit of research for which there is no sure application.
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.