Home' Technology Review : November December 2008 Contents FROM THE EDITOR
TECHNOLOGY REVIEW NOVEMBER/DECEMBER
FROM THE EDITOR
Like snowflakes upon a sea, and as little regarded, are letters
to a new president.
Frustrated former presidents, fretfully retired statesmen,
and senators ambitious to sit in your cabinet want you to enjoy
their wisdom. Ordinary citizens take to their keyboards, as
befits a democracy. Captains of industry, those proud alumni of
the Polytechnic of Life, are determined to level with you. Even
intellectuals---scientists, economists, and, Someone forgive us,
magazine editors---feel the solemn duty to buttonhole you about
what you must do in the first months of your administration.
Wired magazine devoted its October issue to "a Smart List of
15 Wired people with big ideas about how to fix the things that
need fixing." More selectively, we have asked three éminences
of science and technology to advise you. (Letters from Ernest
Moniz, the director of the MIT Energy Initiative; John Halamka,
the chief information o cer of Harvard Medical School; and
Charles Vest, MIT president emeritus, appear on pages 10 and
11.) All try to make action urgent and its nature clear.
As will I. Whoever you are, you will have pressing demands
upon your attention. As I write in mid-October, a burst financial
bubble appears to be leading to a global crisis of liquidity. You
must fight two protracted wars. The very weather frightens. And
at home and abroad there is a general malaise about the Ameri-
can project: to many, the United States, which Ronald Reagan,
echoing Lincoln, often called "the last, best hope of man on
earth," seems to have become one of the ordinary nations.
The promotion of science and technology must feel very far
from your priorities. But encouraging America's scientists and
technologists is essential to the well-being of your fellow citi-
zens and (insofar as the United States has been the world's well-
spring of research and development) of everyone alive.
It was so before. In the 20th century, U.S. achievement in sci-
ence, engineering, and medicine "protected our nation's secu-
rity, fueled most of our economic growth, and nearly doubled
our life span," Chuck Vest writes. "It sent us to the moon, fed the
planet, brought world events into our living rooms, established
instant worldwide communications, gave rise to ubiquitous new
forms of art and entertainment, uncovered the workings of our
natural world, and gave us freedom of travel by air, sea, and land."
Science and technology may astonish the 21st century, and
they can help solve many of the problems you face; but they will
flourish only if the federal government funds long-term discov-
ery research. Venture capitalists and entrepreneurs will develop
the most commercial discoveries; but the discoveries are the
fruit of research for which there is no sure application.
Your predecessor hardly cared for such stu . Over the last
eight years, most federal funding of research was reduced or
maintained at the same level (and therefore declined after infla-
tion). Only one area of research really prospered: science and
technology with applications in security and defense. Generally,
U.S science and technology is su ering.
Consider, for example, research into alternative energy. In
testimony before the House Select Committee on Energy Inde-
pendence and Global Warming in September, MIT's president,
Susan Hockfield, told legislators that in 1980, 10 percent of fed-
eral research dollars went to energy. In 2006, she said, it was less
than 3 percent: between $2.4 and $3.4 billion, or less than half
the annual R&D budget of the largest North American phar-
maceutical company. Hockfield called for Congress to begin by
tripling funding for energy research.
You should champion such increases. In the cover story of
this issue (see "Sun + Water = Fuel," p. 56), Kevin Bullis shows why.
He describes a catalyst developed by Daniel Nocera, a professor
of chemistry at MIT, that generates oxygen from water, much as
plants do during photosynthesis. Bullis writes, "The reaction is
the first and most di cult step in splitting water to make hydro-
gen gas. And that advance, Nocera believes, will help surmount
one of the main obstacles preventing solar power from becom-
ing a dominant source of electricity: there's no cost-e ective
way to store the energy collected by solar panels."
This is a tremendous advance: if artificial photosynthesis
works at a larger scale, we have clean power. Nocera's current re-
search is part of a $21.5 million program, funded by the National
Science Foundation, that will continue until August 2013. But
Nocera has been working on artificial photosynthesis since the
early 1980s, and it will take another decade to commercialize his
work. If we judge by recent emerging energy technologies, that
commercialization will demand hundreds of millions of dol-
lars more. Until venture capitalists have been convinced of the
technology's promise (and potentially for longer, if the financial
markets cannot o er an exit strategy to justify VCs' investment),
much of that money must come from the federal government.
Mr. President, please work with Congress to increase
research funding. Science and technology can expand human
possibilities, but only when they are themselves expansive.
Dear Mr. President
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