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Energy Innovation & Collaboration

At the end of last month, Time Magazine published a great piece written by Bryan Walsh on innovation in the United States. In it, Walsh discusses the past, present, and future of American innovation and highlights the importance of large-scale collaborative efforts. Below you will find some of my thoughts on the piece and ideas presented in it, but I hope that you will take a moment to read the entire article here.

According to Mr. Walsh…

Invention and innovation have been quintessentially American pursuits from the earliest days of the republic.

Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell – iconic Americans that I grew up learning about through books and my father, who has always been a techno-geek (love it!) and could talk for hours about the invention of this and that and the other thing (a.k.a. microwaves, telephones, and computers to name a few – the staples of modern American life).

Inventors like Edison helped build America’s unparalleled scientific and technological dominance, a dominance that, more than any other single factor, made the 20th century the American century. Of the more than 530 Nobel laureates in physics, chemistry or medicine since 1901, more than 200 have been Americans. The ideas that were developed in the country’s leading universities and corporate research and development centers became the products that would underwrite economic titans like Ford, IBM, Boeing, Intel and Google.

Some of these inventions were the direct result of projects aimed to solve a certain issue of the day, for example how to get news of a forest fire to remote communities or how to best coordinate shipments of grain and beef to distant markets. Other technologies were discovered by accident, along the path to other goals – so-called “spillover benefits.”

…the federal government played an important role through its own research laboratories and investments in education. Even when America’s scientific pre-eminence was threatened by the Soviet Union’s Sputnik launch in 1957, the U.S. only came back stronger. “The federal response to Sputnik was an overwhelming investment in science and engineering education,” says Teryn Norris, director of Americans for Energy Leadership. “That had spillover benefits across the board.”

But, the historic leadership of Americans in the innovation sphere is not guaranteed as we look toward the future. The federal government’s support of research & development activities has steadily declined since the 1980’s as a percent of total GDP. While the United States has invested less, east Asian nations are investing more in R&D activities.

China’s investments in R&D grew more than 20% a year between 1996 and 2007, compared with less than 6% annual growth in the U.S. At the same time, American students seem to be losing interest in science. Only about one-third of U.S. bachelor’s degrees are in science or engineering now, compared with 63% in Japan and 53% in China. Though the U.S. was once among the top countries in terms of the ratio of science and engineering degrees to its college-age population, it now ranks near the bottom among the 23 nations that collect that data. And while the U.S. awarded 22,500 doctorates in science and engineering in 2007, more than half of those went to foreign nationals, a proportion that has grown in recent years.

But, it’s not all bad news. Walsh’s article brings up a wonderful point – the powerful role of collaboration in our nation’s success as innovators.

Was a supportive environment important to Edison? Absolutely. He was a singular figure but not a lone genius. His immense gifts were nurtured by the society in which he flourished, one that reveled in the romance of scientific discovery. When he was still a small boy, his family moved from Milan, Ohio, to the bustling lumber town of Port Huron, Mich. For a budding inventor, it was the right place and the right time. The country was in the full grip of the Industrial Revolution. In Port Huron’s lumber mills and shipyards, which fed vessels plying the Great Lakes and beyond, Edison could get his first experience of the machinery that was transforming America from an agricultural nation into an industrial powerhouse.

In the face of concerns regarding our negative impact on our environment due to our current energy choices, I hope that we can again find the “right place and the right time” in America to again innovate and revolutionize this industry.

The first step… a dramatic increase in funding available for R&D.

Categories: Energy Policy
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