Thursday, February 5, 2009

Science and Policy Bootcamp - Day 4

Day four was a global look at energy policy, something that the professor wrote a book on that is coming out in March. If you're interested, check it out.

We started the day by looking at energy technology and policy as the next great innovation wave: for economic, health, geopolitical, quality of life, and environmental reasons, we need to get out of our addiction to oil. Pick your reason. This is your motivation...your carrot in the so-called challenge model.

Frankly, there is blame to go around, and our professor names energy as one of the biggest failures of the past forty years. Detroit has lobbied to keep fuel economy low, and now their big cars with terrible miles per gallon are going to kill their ability to compete. Half of the budget for the defense department is spent protecting oil lines. American drivers want to keep gas prices low.

We need to incentivize newer technologies, but there are issues of choice, as well as scale that are going to make this a really difficult problem to overcome.

The nice thing is that energy is embedded in established markets like transportation and utilities (over 2 trillion dollars a year). But the bad thing about energy is that this established market is going to be really hard to try and retool. Once upon a time, our energy system worked. Our education system worked. Our health care system worked. Our transportation system worked. Our taxation system worked. They have each caved in upon their niches, becoming almost non-functional relics of the past. How do we look at these systems and radically improve how they work? That's the real issue. The US is great at the new frontier, but once we have invented something, it's over and done. We don't go back.

That's what these next decades will require: we need to innovate in older parts of the economy and increase productivity and efficiency. Retrofitting all of these sectors is going to be a huge project, and having a focus on research and development in all of these established industries is crucial.

Yet, there is no silver bullet. None. So get over it. Now. We have other things to do.

So how do we do all of this? (the below focus directly on the energy sector)

-technology neutrality: put both biofuels and hydrogen on the same page. Yes, they are at very different stages and need very different types of support. But both have potential. And we need to look at this in the long term, supporting both radical and incremental innovations.

-actually invest in R&D...pharma spends 20% of their profits on innovation. Energy spends 1%. Change this. The rate of overall return for federal R&D is four to one. With energy, it's estimated that this could turn into a forty to one economic recovery.

-tax gas. Use the revenue for research and development.

-support services-type operations like energy audits (an H&R Block for energy advice)

-begin a new incarnation of DARPA for energy. Bring together the nation's best scientists and appropriate their talent.

-work on market launch--make sure to understand how to interact with a new technology.

Another point is that behavior change can increase fuel efficiency by 25%. That's incredible. People, check the air in your tires. Don't over-accelerate. Don't speed. Congratulations, you have now made a difference. World War II was a great motivator for Victory Gardens, collected old aluminum foil, and mobilizing a highly skilled, smart, and ready workforce. We can do this again. And frankly, we need to. Find your carrot, and go forth! Science and the government are trying to catch up, but in the meantime, do what you can and more.

If you're interested in more information on energy, check out MIT's "Future of ..." series. It's fascinating.

We also had some grad students from the Science and Policy Initiative (SPI) visit and talk about several fellowships for interning and working in DC. The AAAS Fellowship (American Association for the Advancement of Science) is for after your PhD, and it encourages members to take an active role in life in DC. Most of the fellowships mean you are a fellow in name only--you are just doing the job of a normal staff member (although you do have the ubiquitous networking perk of being a fellow). There's also the President's Management Fellowship, which trains people to be high-level management at the government level, as well as the National Academies of Science fellowship. All in all, there are lots of possibilities and opportunities for me to work in DC if I'd like to...thank goodness I do have some time to process and decide what I'd like to do.

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