Forty years ago this week, the Apollo 11 mission touched down on the surface of the moon, and the U.S. won the space race. As we celebrate this historic moment, we are reminded that today America faces a new global competition that will have far greater implications for the future of our nation and the world: the clean energy race.
Unfortunately, instead of summoning the same vigorous commitment to innovation and education that won the space race four decades ago, Congress today is poised to reject a critical initiative to invest in the generation of young engineers, scientists and innovations who must win the clean energy race.
The U.S. simply could not have won the space race without major federal investments in targeted education programs.
Spurred on by the Soviet launch of Sputnik, Congress quickly passed the National Defense Education Act in 1958, committing billions of dollars to equip a generation to confront the Soviet challenge. These investments developed the human capital necessary to put a man on the moon and invent the technologies that catapulted our world into the Information Age, from microchips and telecommunications to personal computing and the Internet.
Today, the U.S. is again dangerously behind in energy science and technology education. Only 15 percent of undergraduate degrees earned in the U.S. each year are in science and engineering compared to 50 percent in China, according to National Academies. This comes at a time when nearly half of our current energy workforce is expected to retire over the next decade, and several Asian nations are moving aggressively to corner the burgeoning global clean energy market.
This spring, the Obama administration proposed an initiative designed to bridge this dangerous energy education gap by inspiring and educating thousands of young Americans to pursue careers in clean energy.
The program, called RE-ENERGYSE (REgaining our ENERGY Science and Engineering Edge), would fund new undergraduate and graduate energy curriculum and research opportunities to prepare up to 8,500 highly educated young scientists and engineers to enter clean energy fields by 2015 alone. Technical training and K12 funding would support hundreds of programs nationwide to train thousands more technically skilled clean energy workers.
As President Obama announced in April,
"The nation that leads the world in 21st century clean energy will be the nation that leads in the 21st century global economy. ... [RE-ENERGYSE] will prepare a generation of Americans to meet this generational challenge."
Unfortunately, the Senate and House Appropriations Committees recently rejected the Obama administration's energy education proposal, with the Senate cutting the program from $115 million to $0 and the House appropriating only $7 million.
The U.S. neglects investments in energy education at our peril.
As my colleague Teryn Norris, Director of Breakthrough Generation and a junior at Stanford University, declared,
"If the U.S. had responded to the Soviet launch of Sputnik the way Congress is responding to today's national energy challenge America would not only have lost the space race, we would have been left behind in the technologies and industries that fueled a half-century of economic progress."
Seeing Congress dangerously close to rejecting President Obama's RE-ENERGYSE initiative, the Breakthrough Institute partnered with the Association of American Universities to rally supporters for this critical investment in our nation's economic and environmental future.
This week, a group of over 100 universities, student groups, clean energy advocates and professional associations submitted a letter to each member of the Senate urging full support of RE-ENERGYSE.
"America is in danger of losing its global competitiveness and the clean energy race without substantial new investments in science, technology, math, and engineering education," they wrote. "RE-ENERGYSE ... will train America's future energy workforce, accelerate our transition to a prosperous clean energy economy, and ensure that we lead the world's burgeoning clean technology industries."
"Young people across America need Congress to act today and help prepare our generation to confront the nation's energy challenges," said Jessy Tolkan, Executive Director of the Energy Action Coalition, a coalition of 50 youth organizations and a supporter of the RE-ENERGYSE program.
Marc Perkins, President of the Johns Hopkins University student government added:
"Students across the nation are passionate about studying and confronting our energy challenge, but the educational resources are nonexistent or critically underfunded."
Nineteen-year-old Kelsea Norris, a student at the University of Georgia and chair of the Sierra Student Coalition, echoed that sentiment:
"So many young people like me are willing to devote their time and energy to solving this energy crisis. What we need is the education and training to do it, but our high schools, colleges, and universities aren't offering that to us."
If America does not take immediate action to bridge its energy education gap — and if we fail to make substantially larger investments in our own clean energy economy — we will effectively cede the clean energy race to competitors abroad who are more aggressively investing in clean energy education, innovation and technology.
"The question our Congress faces today," said Norris, "is this: Will they invest in a new generation of American innovators to win the global clean energy race, or will they allow Asia to take the lead?"