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Wednesday, July 08, 2009

House Committee Cuts Funding for Obama's Energy Education Initiative

By Devon Swezey, Breakthrough Fellow
Cross-posted from Breakthrough Institute

President Obama's national energy education program designed to create a generation of clean energy innovators has been cut from $115 to $7 million by a House subcommittee. The cuts could mean that fewer than 100 scholarships, not 1,500 scholarships, will be available annually.

Energy analysts say that one of the key barriers to developing clean energy technologies that can compete with fossil fuels is the lack of scholarships both for young scientists to do basic research and for engineers seeking to apply discoveries in the real world.

The Administration's energy education program, called RE-ENERGYSE (REgaining our ENERGY Science and Engineering Edge), would have resulted in "the development of leading edge undergraduate and graduate programs and between 5,000 and 8,500 highly educated scientists, engineers, and other professionals to enter the clean energy field by 2015; and approximately 10,000 to 17,000 professionals by 2020," according to the Department of Energy (DOE). The initiative, which would be jointly supported by DOE and the National Science Foundation, was modeled after the Breakthrough Institute's National Energy Education Act proposal and would have been the largest federal initiative to focus exclusively on clean energy education.

President Obama announced the initiative as a way to "inspire the next generation of clean energy innovators", similar to the way that the launch of Sputnik and the space race inspired young people to pursue careers in science and engineering in the 1950s and 60s. In 1958, the government passed the National Defense Education Act (NDEA), which provided billions of dollars over 4 years to train a new generation of scientists to help America compete with the Soviet Union in scientific and technical fields. But in recent years, the number of science and technology professionals has been declining as a share of the labor force, a development that has education experts worried.

The cut to the President's energy education initiative comes as recent reports have expressed concern about the state of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education in the United States. A number of recent studies show that the United States lags behind many of its economic competitors, particularly in higher education. According to a report by the National Academy of Sciences, in 2004 only 15% of American undergraduates received their degrees in natural science or engineering, while in China a full 50% of students received their undergraduate degrees in those subjects. American students are trailing their foreign counterparts in post-graduate STEM education as well; in 2004, 56% of engineering PhDs in the United States were awarded to foreign-born students.

Experts also worry that the lack of investment in STEM education will hamper America's ability to be a leader in an increasingly competitive global economy, particularly in the development of clean energy technologies. In recent weeks, a number of Asian countries have announced massive increases in clean energy investment. China recently announced it would invest $440-$660 billion over 10 years in renewable energy. South Korea has also committed $85 billion over five years--a full 2 percent of its GDP--for "green" investment. In August, China, Japan, and South Korea will meet to discuss ways they can work together on clean energy technology, according to Time Magazine.

By comparison, the American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACES), which recently passed in the House, provides $6-12 billion in annual investments in clean energy. A recent EPA analysis projects that the bill would actually result in less renewable energy deployment in 2020 than would exist without the bill.

In a letter urging a Senate appropriations subcommittee to restore funding for the RE-ENERGYSE program, Debra Stewart, the President of the Council of Graduate Schools, wrote that investing in human capital today was necessary for the U.S. to succeed in creating the clean and renewable energy resources of tomorrow.

"These investments in graduate education would invigorate research in "green" technologies and prepare the workforce necessary for the 21st century global economy", she wrote.

The full Senate Appropriations Committee will take up the DOE 2010 budget request tomorrow, when they will decide how much funding will be allocated to the RE-ENERGYSE program. Any differences will then be resolved in conference between the two chambers and approved before being sent to the President for his signature.

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