THE GEEK SHORTAGE: According to the National Science Foundation, American universities graduated a record number of science and engineering PhDs in 2006--almost 30,000 of them. So we should have plenty of scientists to set to work on the energy challenge; yet, as a recent study from the Urban Institute explains, "each year there are more than three times as many S&E four-year college graduates as S&E job openings." What gives? Turns out a lot of those graduates are in the biological sciences--which, coincidentally, saw a massive boost in federal funding a few years ago.
What we need is a new Sputnik scare: After the Soviet Union put the first-ever satellite in orbit, Congress passed the National Defense Education Act, providing about $6.5 billion worth (in today's dollars) of funding for graduate fellowships, low-interest college loans, and new research equipment and facilities. Why no National Energy Education Act today?
Chris is a contributing editor to Science Progress, senior correspondent for The American Prospect and author of two books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science and Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming, selected as a 2007 best book of the year in the science category by Publisher's Weekly. He was one of the first to support my and Jesse Jenkins' proposal back in August, when he wrote a piece for Science Progress, "A New Mission for American Science," where he said:
Perhaps the most science-centric articulations of the idea that I've seen come from Internet pioneer Vinton Cerf, writing right here at Science Progress, and Teryn Norris and Jesse Jenkins of the Breakthrough Institute. The latter argued recently in the San Francisco Chronicle that we need a National Energy Education Act, parallel to the post-Sputnik National Defense Education Act of 1958, that would invest dramatic sums in creating educational opportunities for scientists who wish to work on new energy innovations. "New research grants, graduate fellowships and energy-science-and-policy focused curricula; financial aid and loan forgiveness for students entering clean energy development fields"--all this, and more, are part of Norris's and Jenkins's proposal. And in focusing their prescriptions on universities in particular, they're getting quite close to the kind of vision for American science that we need to see emerge right now, just as it did in the troubled days after Sputnik.
Certainly the magnitude of the challenge is similar. And there's an even more important parallel--the mechanism by which the challenge must be answered.
Following Sputnik, the buildup in national scientific capacity came about as the direct and intentional result of dramatic government investment. Federal funding for scientific education and scientific research alike boomed, because suddenly science became a matter of major public import. The private sector, alone, wasn't going to undertake anything visionary like the Apollo program; and by the same token, although private sector energy companies and entrepreneurs will surely make a fortune off of the new innovations that we so badly need right now, they can't be expected to comprehensively underwrite the undirected, curiosity-driven research that will lay the groundwork for them.
Thanks to Chris for such sharp analysis. He ends his piece in Mother Jones with a strong call to make energy innovation our top national scientific priority:
If by now you want to punch a wall--or key a Hummer--that's understandable. It's hard not to feel helpless as we careen into an entirely preventable energy crisis. Veering off the crash course will necessitate many things: foremost, finally and unequivocally recognizing that--whether your preferred analogy is the Apollo Program or the Manhattan Project--energy innovation must be the nation's preeminent scientific priority.