Friday, October 02, 2009

Energy and Water Appropriations Conference Confirms No Funding for RE-ENERGYSE

Originally posted at the Breakthrough Institute

Yesterday, the tiny window of opportunity for President Obama's national energy education initiative, RE-ENERGYSE (Regaining our ENERGY Science and Engineering Edge), unceremoniously vanished, at least for FY2010, when House and Senate Conferees on the Energy and Water Appropriations bill completed the final conference agreement and provided no funding for RE-ENERGYSE.

This isn't a total surprise. RE-ENERGYSE - originally a $115 billion initiative designed to support the education of the next generation of scientists, engineers, and energy innovators - was allocated only $7.5 million by the House appropriations committee and then subsequently slashed by the Senate committee earlier this summer. Not surprising, maybe, but certainly disappointing and representative of a larger lack of support for American clean energy competitiveness at a time when energy and climate change is a top national policy priority and several Asian nations are aggressively positioning themselves to corner burgeoning clean energy technology markets.

After both the House and Senate appropriations were announced in July, the Breakthrough Institute's Jesse Jenkins and Teryn Norris penned an op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle comparing the number of science, math, and engineering undergraduates in the U.S. to those in China.

"Only 15 percent of undergraduate degrees earned in the United States are in science and engineering, compared with 50 percent in China, according to the National Academies... If the United States had responded to the Soviet launch of Sputnik the way today's Congress is responding to the Asian energy challenge, America would have lost the space race and been left behind in the industries that fueled a half century of economic progress."

Perhaps even more disheartening, is that more than 100 universities, professionals, and youth groups - in other words those individuals most cognizant of the need for an education program focused on building American competitiveness - submitted a letter urging Congress to fully fund RE-ENERGYSE, which it appears was roundly ignored.

In a separate announcement yesterday, Secretary of Energy, Steven Chu revealed the newly created Department of Energy Office of Science Graduate Fellowship program, which will award up to $12.5 million in funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) to at least 80 U.S. students pursuing advanced degrees in science, mathematics, and engineering. As Chu announced, the goal of the program is similar to that of RE-ENERGYSE:

"Training the next generation of U.S. scientists and engineers is critical to our future energy security and economic competitiveness. This Fellowship is part of the Administration's effort to encourage students to direct their talents towards careers in science and our nation's next technology revolution."

The scale of the program, however, does not approach the far-reaching impact education initiative, which would support math and science education at all levels from Kindergarten through advanced graduate degrees.

Other energy innovation programs, such as Secretary Chu's Energy Innovation Hubs, fared slightly better at the conference. The final report allocated $22 million in funding for each of three out of the eight proposed hubs, enough to initially establish centers focusing on "Fuels from Sunlight," "Energy Efficient Building Systems Design Energy," and nuclear energy "Modeling and Simulation."

In total, the final conference agreement provides the Department of Energy's Office of Science - which manages the network of National Labs and conducts both basic energy research and a host of other "big science" endeavors, including nuclear science and particle physics - with approximately $4.904 billion dollars, a figure that is about $40 million short of the original House appropriation and almost $5 million more than that of the Senate.

These energy innovation programs are critical if the U.S. aims to make clean energy cheap and transition to a clean energy economy that is vibrant, robust, and internationally competitive, particularly with rising Asian tigers like China. The lack of support for RE-ENERGYSE has long-term implications for both our economy and our international competitiveness. Without support for energy-related education in the fields of math, science, and engineering we will not be building a force of bright, young minds that are capable of imagining the innovations we need to confront the scope of the energy challenge we face, as well as advance U.S. leadership over its competitors in the clean energy race.

And while a total of $66 million to establish a few small energy innovation centers is a (tiny) step in the right direction, its an effort several orders of magnitude too small to restore American leadership in energy technology and innovation. As a recent report co-authored by the Breakthrough Institute and D.C. think tank, Third Way, suggests, the U.S. needs a targeted investment of $15 billion annually to establish a National Institutes of Energy that would oversee a network of energy innovation institutes, much larger, and far-reaching, than the Energy Innovation Hubs proposed here.

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