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Are Scientific Breakthroughs Overrated?

Very loosely speaking, there are two types of technological advances: the everyday, run-of-the-mill sort, and then the big, truly transformational discoveries. In the latter category we can include the transistor, which was developed by AT&T's Bell Labs in the 1940s and revolutionized the field of electronics. (It's certainly in the mix for best invention of the twentieth century.) And one of the big questions surrounding this clean-energy economy that Obama wants to bring about is whether it will require those sorts of sweeping scientific breakthroughs—or whether we can muddle by with small improvements on our existing solar, nuclear, and biofuel ideas. A few weeks ago, Jim Tankersly of the Los Angeles Times reported that many federal officials believe we really will need radical breakthroughs:

A recent Energy Department task force report details the sort of breakthroughs crucial to fulfilling Obama's vision of a "clean energy economy" that could slash dependence on foreign oil, combat climate change and ignite the next great domestic job boom.

The wish list includes cells that convert sunlight to electricity with double or triple the efficiency of today's solar panels; batteries that store 10 times more energy than current models; a process for capturing and storing the carbon dioxide emissions from coal; and advanced materials that allow coal and nuclear power plants to operate at hotter temperatures and higher efficiency.

Researchers are working on all of them. But what's required is more than incremental advances in technology. It is advances in understanding basic physics and chemistry that are "beyond our present reach," the report said.

That's daunting. But not everyone concurs. The IPCC, in its 2007 assessment report, argued that we can curb emissions and keep atmospheric carbon below the risky zone of 450 parts per million by using "a portfolio of technologies that are currently available and those that are expected to be commercialized in coming decades." No need to wait for cold fusion. Similarly, Joe Romm, who worked in the Energy Department's technology office during the Clinton years, has warned that genuinely game-changing breakthroughs come about very rarely, and if we want to slash global emissions 80 percent or more by mid-century, we'll have to make do with technologies that are out there or just over the horizon.

On this view, we can likely count on solar photovoltaic panels becoming steadily cheaper and more efficient over time. It's also not a stretch, perhaps, to expect that engineers will figure out how to capture carbon from coal emissions and store it in geological reservoirs deep underground. But we shouldn't bet on revolutionary gadgets like hydrogen fuel cells appearing and upending the transport sector anytime soon. (Plug-in vehicles are a safer gamble as a climate solution.) Basic scientific research is still worth funding, but the main policy tools needed here are a price on carbon and government support for deploying already-viable technologies as quickly as possible.

Fair enough. But take a good long look at Romm's roadmap for keeping carbon below the 450 parts per million "red line" while relying on existing or just-around-the-corner technologies. It's daunting. Not impossible by any stretch, but really, really difficult. We're talking about adding 17 new nuclear plants around the world each year—and that's just to satisfy one of the fourteen "wedges" of a larger clean-energy push. A major technological breakthrough (or two!) certainly wouldn't hurt.

But for that to happen, the federal government needs to rethink the way it funds basic research. Congress has been pouring money into energy R&D for three decades now, with nothing transformational to show for its pains. As Tankersly notes, a series of reports have come out criticizing federal support for scientific research as "fragmented" and "insular," as suffering from "inadequate coordination and follow-through." Time just highlighted a proposal from Mark Muro of the Brookings Institution to create twelve regional "energy discovery innovation institutes" that would compete with each other and race to shove ideas from the lab out into the marketplace. It's a solid idea, whether or not one you believe a major clean-energy push will require a scientific revolution.

(Photo credit: The Rocketeer on Flickr)

--Bradford Plumer