Note to Washington: Unleash the Geeks

Earth Sunrise

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There is good climate change and bad climate change. One of the very best types is the radical warming of the atmosphere for scientific inquiry we’re already feeling from the incoming Obama administration.

Watchdog reports from the Union of Concerned Scientists and other groups have detailed the suffocation of science in the Bush administration–the censorship of findings, delays in producing required reports, reduced funding for earth sciences. President Bush is not known as the inquisitive type. As I have reported in the past, some members of the federal government’s science corps believe the president stifled climate science because he doesn’t want to know the answers. He most likely doesn’t want the rest of us to know them, either.

What a difference an election can make. President-elect Obama, often the smartest guy in the room, obviously is open to new knowledge, information and ideas. He’s named Nobel Laureate physicist Stephen Chu, director of Lawrence Livermore Berkeley National Laboratory, to be the next secretary of Energy; physicist and energy/environment expert John Holdren of Harvard as his science advisor; Marine biologist Jane Lubchenco of Oregon State University to head NOAA; and Harold Varmus, former director of the National Institutes of Health, and Eric Lander of MIT as co-chairmen of the president’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

As Alan Leshner of the American Association for the Advancement of Science notes in the Economist, “we’ve never had a president surrounded in close proximity with so many well-known, top scientific minds.”

Another signal that it’s springtime for science is the economic stimulus plan the Obama team is circulating in Congress and in cyberspace. According to the plan:

Obama and Biden support doubling federal funding for basic research and changing the posture of our federal government from being one of the most anti-science administrations in American history to one that embraces science and technology.

Here are some additional suggestions as the administration prepares to take office.

End political censorship: During his first week in office, President Obama should issue an executive order that forbids political interference in the work of federal climate scientists. The order should also remove barriers to contact between federal scientists and the media and order agencies to release draft scientific reports that become buried in the “black hole” of agency review. 

Restore earth sciences: Obama should direct NASA to put the study of the Earth back into its mission statement. More substantively, the administration should ask Congress to increase the agency’s funding for climate-observing satellites, its capability to analyze climate data, and its studies of the likely local and regional impacts of climate change in the United States. Climate scientists lament that with the erosion of NASA’s satellites budget, the institutions trying to better understand global warming are going blind.

“The observations we have at this point just aren’t good enough,” said Robert Charlson of the Department of Atmospheric Sciences and Department of Chemistry at the University of Washington in Seattle. “The biggest single problem we have now is a lack of adequate satellite measurements, and the platforms that could be moving us toward answers are either pending or being killed.”

If necessary, funding for NASA’s Mission to Mars should be transferred to Earth sciences. We need to understand Earth’s life-support systems now; we can worry about Mars later.

Protect the oceans: The atmosphere is not the only life-support system in distress. Climate change and other anthropogenic misdeeds are degrading oceans worldwide. Problems range from plastics pollution to red tides, from depleted fisheries to sea-level rise, and from coral bleaching to new pressures to mine everything from minerals to methane. (For a current summary of ocean issues, see the Economist’s special section “Troubled Waters”.)

We can expect Dr. Lubchenco to move NOAA forward on our understanding of ocean ecology and how to protect it. While the United Nations and several national and international commissions have studied ocean problems (for example, Defying Ocean’s End, which involved 150 experts from 20 nations in 2003 to develop recommendations for ocean protection), Dr. Lubchenco should explore the creation of an IPCC for the oceans, an unprecedented collaboration among the world’s top marine scientists to better understand what’s happening in our oceans and to propose what should be done about it. Among other things, this new body should explore the implications of proposals to geo-engineer the oceans to better store carbon, a questionable idea that suggests we can safely manipulate oceans before we fully understand them.

In short, the Obama administration should capture the title of Teddy Roosevelt of the Oceans from President George W. Bush.

Fund the full technology path: Obama’s proposal to double funding for basic research should be expanded to cover all stages in developing and deploying clean energy technologies. Basic research alone doesn’t create jobs or solve the climate crisis.

Technology development can be divided into three categories: evolutionary (ready in three years or less), disruptive (ready in 3-10 years) and revolutionary (not ready for 10 years or more). We need more funding for all three. We need more applied research to accelerate the maturation of critical technologies including advanced batteries for electric vehicles, cellulosic ethanol to offset petroleum, and utility-scale energy storage to solve the intermittency problems of solar and wind energy. We need to expand programs that move new technologies to market and speed their market penetration.

Given the deplorable cuts in federal R&D funding, doubling is a start but it’s not enough. For example, in Fiscal Year 2008, the only national laboratory dedicated to research on energy efficiency and renewable energy–the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, CO.–was allocated less than $330 million for its research. That money is spread across its work on infrastructure, building efficiency, solar energy, transmission and distribution, bio-energy, wind power, vehicle technologies, hydrogen, federal energy management, geothermal energy and basic sciences. Given the urgency and span of NREL’s work on technologies that not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions but also lead to a stable new energy economy, $330 million is an underinvestment, to put it politely.

The Presidential Climate Action Project recommends that the federal budget for research, development and commercialization of clean energy technologies be increased ten-fold. If that’s not possible right now given the federal deficit and the economy, then it needs to be our goal over the next four years.

Mobilize entrepreneurs: If the information technology revolution was any indication, the next big breakthrough in energy technologies may happen, not in a laboratory, but in a garage or dorm room. Part of the federal research strategy should be to empower inventors, small businesses and entrepreneurs. The Obama stimulus plan contains several good provisions to engage small businesses in economic recovery. Other ideas: Increase and stabilize funding for the Advanced Research Projects Agency, or ARPA-E, the new research program created by Congress in August 2007 to “support transformational energy technology research projects with the goal of enhancing the nation’s economic and energy security”. There have been questions about whether the U.S. Department of Energy is the right agency to administer the program; those questions need to be answered. The President should also seek increased funding and greater focus on energy and climate security for the Small Business Innovation Research Program, in which 11 federal agencies contribute a small percent of their R&D budgets for technology innovations by small businesses.

Now that Hillary Clinton is on the team, the Obama administration might even pick up a few ideas from the science platform that she announced during her run for president. Good ideas on energy and climate policy, and sound science from all quarters should be welcome again in the White House.

We’re about to emerge from a Dark Age–eight years in which the operative philosophy of the most powerful leader in the world has been “what we don’t know won’t hurt us.” How wrong he was. We need the smartest guy in the room to surround himself with other smart people, to listen to them and to give them resources equal to the enormous problems they now must help us solve.