Chu addresses President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology at first meeting

Some of the greatest challenges our society faces are tightly intertwined with science and technology. And I’m not just (“just”—hah!) talking about cutting greenhouse gas emissions in the hopes of staving off catastrophic climate change; I’m talking about securing the world’s nuclear stockpiles, transforming the hoary American health care system, reviving our beleaguered economy, and educating the next generation of workers so they can compete internationally. As if making tackling cap-and-trade and renewable energy weren’t enough of a task for this administration.

But don’t worry; the smart guys are working on it.

The group of people who gathered in the White House conference center this morning and the Keck Center of the National Academies yesterday afternoon represent some of the most formidable minds in the country. We’re talking two university presidents, a former NIH director, Microsoft upper management and the CEO of Google. For the rest of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, Obama seems to have ransacked Harvard, MIT, Caltech, and other top universities for their best biologists and astrophysicists, string theorists and computer scientists.

For the past two days, I’ve been a fly on the wall while this group of intellectual luminaries decide what problems they’ll be zapping with their prodigious brainpower. But while I was left with the impression that if anyone should be advising the American president on science, it’s these folks, I was also left thinking that I certainly don’t envy them the task they have ahead.

One of the most looming problems that requires a strong scientific approach is cap-and-trade policy. A bill implementing this policy has already passed the House and is being discussed in the Senate. But as Senior Policy Counsel of the Environmental Protection Agency Robert Sussman pointed out in his presentation to PCAST about energy and environment, we don’t truly have the whole story, neither on carbon offsets—reducing greenhouse gases, say, by reviving damaged rainforest—nor on carbon capture and storage, which looks more and more like an inevitability since, like it or not, America runs on coal for now.

“Many people question whether it is real or if it’s a pipe dream,” Sussman said. “But the reality is I think it’s the only option available to us to continue to use and burn large amounts of coal while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”

No one’s terribly sure whether injecting carbon dioxide deep into the ground is a great idea. Will it affect groundwater supplies adversely? Will it even sequester the carbon in the long term? And yet, if the current climate change bill, or similar legislation, were to pass, instating the cap-and-trade system, both emissions and offsetting would have to be quantified in a reasonable way to ensure that the whole thing isn’t a charade. Cheating, in this case, is not an option—we’ll fry ourselves.

There seemed to be a lot of frustration in the room about renewable energy. Why isn’t it growing, even though we need it now more than ever? Personally, I was disappointed to see Sussman bring up “clean coal” when the promise of really innovating ways of powering the world hasn’t even been pursued.

Turns out Secretary of Energy Steven Chu is frustrated too. He arrived, fresh off a flight from Boston, at around 5 o’clock on the first day of the meeting, shrugged off his government-official-chic jacket, rolled up his shirt sleeves (actually, he didn’t—he was wearing a short-sleeved engineer’s shirt, possibly festooned with pens) and got to work. He seemed tangibly pleased to be facing a room full of other Really Smart People. His address to the gathered brains wasn’t so much a speech as an earnest, unrehearsed plea—how do we jump start innovation? Why are we slipping behind other countries?

First of all, Chu pointed out, the market punishes companies who are willing to take a risk on innovative ideas, unless they pay off immediately.

“I have heard time and time again, a company wants to do a research program, up the R&D for four or five years,” Chu said. “Then the analyst says, ‘This is no good,’ and the stock gets punished, then the board and CEO of the company have to weigh this. In the end they pay attention to the stock prices.”

He pointed to the example of lithium ion batteries, which were developed in the United States but could only take off commercially abroad, through the R&D efforts of Sony. Chu mentioned it like a missed opportunity—most lithium ion batteries now come from Asia. Chu said he’d recently come back from a trip to China (check out his photos on Flickr), where he learned that a Chinese company was launching a 300 million dollar R&D program “that smelled a lot like Bell labs.”

“Can you imagine a utility company in the US doing this?” Chu said. “And why not? Whe should be asking ourselves these questions.”

Since January, scientists have had reasons to pump their fists, with basic science funding in the Department of Energy restored from the deep slashes made in the 2008 budget. And now the national labs are benefiting from American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funding.

“The basic science is in a much healthier state, both in universities and national labs and in the Office of Science,” Chu said. “But where we fall short is where we transition from basic science discoveries into the marketplace.”

Chu and most of PCAST seem to think that the way we fund science needs to change before we’ll see good ideas catching on in industry. When you’re a scientist who has to reapply for funding every three years, it just doesn’t make sense to take on risky problems in brand-new areas. Chu hopes ARPA-E and Energy Frontiers Research Centers (“I’d like to call them ‘bell lablets,'” he joked) will hark back to the early days of invention-factory Bell labs (which no longer funds basic research) and even the Manhattan project. Chu said that we need entities that support a powerful slew of energy projects that are “really very daring, [where] most of them will fail, but some of them might succeed.”

“Just don’t fund things that might violate the second law of thermodynamics,” he joked.

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