I think Thomas Friedman may be borderline manic-depressive. He’s so progressively hopeful and gullible about the promises of technology and education to make a better world, but so despondent and forlorn about their application and exploitation in the real world. Everyone else but the US seems to get the policy applications right.
Singapore’s billion dollar investment in a biomedical science hub is compared to our failure to fund the discovery of innovations in energy technologies through eight “energy research hubs”. Freidman relates that our motivations are right, even if the funding has yet to come through, from the New York Times:
The idea behind the hubs, explained Chu (Steven Chu, the Nobel Laureate Energy Secretary), is to “capture the same spirit” that produced radar and the first nuclear bomb. That is, “get Nobel Prize winners in physics working side by side with engineers” — not to produce an academic paper but “to solve a problem in a way that will actually be deployed” and do it much faster than the traditional academic model of everyone working in their own silo.
Chu unwittingly revealed the real problem as he explained the Administration’s strategy for the energy research hubs–there isn’t a problem to be resolved.
Radar was developed and deployed in only a few months once it became clear that it would give the Allies a huge advantage in their efforts against the Nazis. The first nuclear weapon used in combat came less than half a decade after it was conceived as a possibility.
What similarly urgent problem might these energy hubs be tasked with resolving? Fossil fuels are still plentiful and cheap. Find something that is more plentiful and cheaper, and you’ve done something. But you will have to beat the declining cost curve for fossil fuels. We have steadily improved our GDP per BTU of coal, oil and natural gas since the mid-70’s. And there is no immediate crisis, with the chance to save millions of lives today through development of alternative energy sources.
I suppose what Friedman really wishes for is a war. Then we could relentlessly focus on developing new technologies, if for a different purpose than he imagines. But that’s how radar and nuclear bombs were developed. They weren’t built first and then the people found a use for them. They were purposively developed to solve a problem confronting society at the time. And that’s how new energy technologies will ultimately get developed–when they are needed.