- Reimagining energy - Op-ed by Susan Hockfield, Washington Post, Sept. 11, 2008
- Testimony by Susan Hockfield before the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming - Transcript
MIT President Susan Hockfield urged Congress Wednesday to sharply increase federal funding for energy research, saying such a move could help unleash an "energy revolution" capable of resolving several of America's problems at once.
"We stand on the verge of a global energy technology revolution," Hockfield said in testimony before the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming in Washington. "The question before us is: Will America lead it and reap the rewards? Or will we surrender that advantage to other countries with clearer vision?"
At the hearing, titled "Investing in the future: R&D needs to meet America's energy and climate challenges," Hockfield said boosting federal energy research could simultaneously help address the problems of a shaky economy, geopolitical instabilities linked to energy consumption and security, and the growing evidence of climate change.
"If one advance could transform America's prospects," she said, "it would be having a range of clean, renewable, low-carbon energy technologies, ready to power our cars, our buildings and our industries, at scale, while creating jobs and protecting the planet." Toward that end, the MIT Energy Initiative, in addition to a range of important scientific and engineering advances, has already generated landmark reports on nuclear, geothermal and coal technologies, and has additional reports in the works on solar power, cap-and-trade policy and other energy approaches.Â
Chaired by Massachusetts Congressman Edward Markey, the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming was created last year to address issues related to the urgent challenges of oil dependence and climate change. In addition to Hockfield, the committee heard testimony from Stephen Forrest, vice president of research at the University of Michigan; Jack Fellows, vice president of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research; and Daniel Kammen, professor at UC-Berkeley.
While federal funding for energy research has helped power the economy in the past, Hockfield noted, it has dwindled alarmingly in recent years, from 10 percent of the federal research budget in 1980 to just 2 percent today. At the same time, corporate R&D by energy companies has also plummeted, she said, to less than one-quarter of 1 percent of revenues, compared to the 18 percent invested by pharmaceutical companies.
"Congress funded the basic research that spawned the information technology revolution and the biotech revolution," she said. "Today, to spark an energy revolution, Congress must lead again."
Hockfield pointed out that at the beginning of World War II, former MIT Dean of Engineering and Vice President Vannevar Bush persuaded President Franklin D. Roosevelt to make major investments in R&D, which resulted in innovations that not only helped to win the war but also spurred an ongoing partnership between the government and universities that "launched many of our most important industries, produced countless medical advances and spawned virtually all of the technologies that define our modern quality of life."
There is great potential for a similar impact today, she said.
Hockfield was asked for her impression of how much interest there was among students in working on such energy technologies. "The students' interest level is absolutely deafening," she said. "Students are wildly enthusiastic." As an example, she pointed to work done by the student-led MIT Energy Club, with its more than 700 members.
To take the lead in developing the new energy technologies the world needs, Hockfield said, the United States should triple its investment in energy research promptly, then move to a higher level as the Department of Energy builds its capacity to translate basic research to the marketplace.Â She called for industry, government and universities to work together on a collaborative "roadmap" to plan those next steps for coming years. And she emphasized the importance of spreading that research money broadly across a portfolio of energy research areas, not just those that seem poised for the most immediate return.
"We can't choose winners now, we don't know what they will be," she said.
The first step, she suggested, is to set up the collaborative panel to create a detailed strategic plan for the coming years.
"We need work going on across a range of technologies," Hockfield said. "We need to develop everything we can get our hands on." By doing so, she said, "we can turn this global energy challenge into a global opportunity."
Hockfield will speak on energy again next week in Washington, at a press conference Wednesday at the National Press Club, which will also feature two energy industry leaders and the director of a national laboratory. The event will highlight the importance of federally funded R&D to the nation's commercial competitiveness. And MIT will also be represented at a hearing on energy policy this Friday before the Senate Energy Committee, which will hear testimony from Institute Professor John Deutch.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on September 17, 2008 (download PDF).