In the Energy Race, Echoes of Sputnik

With some House Republicans gunning for the stimulus bill, especially the portion that went to the Energy Department, the energy secretary went on a pre-emptive offensive of sorts on Monday in advance of the Republican takeover over the chamber, telling an audience at the National Press Club that that money was merely a down payment. Prosperity relies on technological innovation, which in turn rests on research and development, said Steven Chu, a physicist and Nobel laureate. (Just before he spoke at the luncheon meeting, guests on the dais were each served a dessert cupcake with white frosting topped by chocolatey black icing in the design of an atom, with a nucleus and circling electrons.) But private-sector investment in R&D is low, and public sector investment is wanting, too, he said: it peaked in 1979 and “with a few bumps and wiggles, has been going downhill ever since then,’’ he noted. The 2010 federal budget is $3.6 trillion, of which 0.14 percent went for research and development related to energy, Dr. Chu said. “The question is, post-stimulus, are we going to return to this downward trend or are we going to do something about it?’’ he asked. Meanwhile, in the jockeying among House Republicans for leadership positions, Dr. Chu and his department have become a target. Representative Fred Upton of Michigan, the ranking Republican member of a subcommittee of the Energy and Commerce Committee, sent a letter to Dr. Chu on Nov. 23 complaining that the Energy Department’s $40 billion slice of the $862 billion stimulus bill did not appear to be doing much to create jobs. “Is it true that as of the date of this letter, less than $10 billion of the approximately $40 billion has been paid out?’’ he asked. But in his speech, Dr. Chu seemed to have longer-term goals in mind. He compared the recent rise in research and development and high-technology manufacturing in China to the Soviet launching of the Sputnik satellite in October 1957. In 1998, he said, the American share of worldwide high-tech exports was nearly 25 percent and China’s was less than 10 percent; by 2008, he said, China’s share was 20 percent and the American share was less than 15 percent. In 2009, for the first time, a majority of United States patents were issued to foreigners, he said, and two Chinese universities, Tsinghua and Peking, are “the two largest suppliers of students who receive Ph.D.’s in the United States.” The United States would cooperate with China and with India on developing new energy technologies because their development would benefit everyone, he said. And with no near-term hope of a price on carbon dioxide emissions in the United States, he said, technology will no doubt be the focus. Dr. Chu said his department would continue to “develop and nurture the technologies to help industry go in the right direction.’” Eventually, there will be a price on carbon dioxide emissions, and “when push comes to shove and the rubber hits the road, that’s what’s going to allow us to do what we have to do,” he said. ((29 NOV 2010))















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