Friday, January 28, 2011

Obama's Breakthrough


By Devon Swezey, Originally Published at the Breakthrough Institute

With last night's State of the Union address, President Obama has shifted the debate from the partisan climate wars to an expansive energy innovation policy which has the potential to draw support from across the political spectrum.

"In embracing breakthrough innovation for solar and nuclear power alike -- for economic competitiveness rather than climate reasons -- President Obama took a bold first step toward a national commitment to energy innovation that is in the long tradition of bi-partisan support for science and technology," wrote Breakthrough Institute co-founders Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus in a statement. "While the road forward will not be easy, at least it is one America has traveled before."

In a State of the Union speech framed centrally around restoring America's global economic leadership, President Obama argued forcefully for increasing federal investment in energy innovation, declaring that "breakthrough" technologies have driven decades of innovation that "created new industries and millions of new jobs."

Obama's speech was a rejection of proposals to cut federal spending across the board, as he finally made the case before the American people about why public support for innovation is critical for the country's long-term prosperity:

"Our free enterprise system is what drives innovation. But because it's not always profitable for companies to invest in basic research, throughout history our government has provided cutting-edge scientists and inventors with the support that they need. That's what planted the seeds for the Internet. That's what helped make possible things like computer chips and GPS. Just think of all the good jobs - from manufacturing to retail - that have come from those breakthroughs."

In its recent report, "Where Good Technologies Come From," Breakthrough Institute documents how America's blockbuster pharmaceutical drugs, high-yield agricultural crops, and revolutionary technologies like the iPhone were all due to the federal government's sustained, multi-decadal investments in innovation.

Obama also embraced a key element of the "Post-Partisan Power" proposal issued by scholars from the American Enterprise Institute, the Brookings Institution, and the Breakthrough Institute, which is to stop subsidizing the production of old technologies and start using competitive deployment and military procurement to purchase new ones.

"We're telling America's scientists and engineers that if they assemble teams of the best minds in their fields, and focus on the hardest problems in clean energy, we'll fund the Apollo Projects of our time...instead of subsidizing yesterday's energy, let's invest in tomorrow's"

In a fact sheet sent out after the speech titled "President Obama's Plan to Win the Future by Investing in Clean Energy Research and Development," the White House detailed new clean energy investments expected in the President's FY 2012 budget proposal, which are expected to grow modestly to $8 billion.

They include:

  • "More than doubling" the current $300 million budget for the Department of Energy's ARPA-E.
  • Doubling the number of the Department of Energy's Energy Innovation Hubs, from three to six.
  • Doubling the investment in applied R&D, including efficiency, vehicle technology R&D for advanced batteries, and building technology R&D.

Obama's plan includes investment in more than R&D, and embraces the tripartite clean energy competitiveness framework--R&D, manufacturing, and markets--that Breakthrough Institute and ITIF first advanced in "Rising Tigers, Sleeping Giant."

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