Common Tragedies

Thoughts on Environmental Economics

Intellectual Infrastructure

Posted by Evan Herrnstadt on December 9, 2008

The NY Times’ Dot Earth blog has a post today discussing the need for investment in “intellectual infrastructure”:

So far the focus seems to be mainly on rebuilding physical infrastructure: insulating leaky low-income housing, building wind turbines, improving the clunky electrical grid and the like. These are, by almost any measure, logical starting points for an effort to cut America’s energy bill and carbon dioxide emissions while restoring prosperity.  But for such an initiative to be green at a scale sufficient for the atmosphere to notice, my sense is it will need to focus just as much on rebuilding the country’s intellectual infrastructure.

Andrew Revkin makes several good points that I’d like to elaborate on a bit:

1.  We need scientists and engineers to perform R&D to really transform our economy.  Unfortunately, you can’t just grab a bunch of random people, stick them in a lab, and expect great things to happen.  Research indicates that the labor supply for scientists and engineers is at least somewhat inelastic, meaning that more money is likely to go to more equipment and high salaries, but will not necessarily result in more actual R&D output.  Thus, we need to begin encouraging today’s students to take paths that will train them in hard sciences and engineering subjects.  There are a lot of policy suggestions here, such as a government pledge to college freshmen to fund graduate study in certain fields if they meet academic benchmarks.  There are more preference-changing actions that can be taken as well.  I particularly liked this line from the post (specifically from Barack Obama’s recent appearance on Meet the Press):

We want to invite kids from local schools into the White House. When it comes to science, elevating science once again, and having lectures in the White House where people are talking about traveling to the stars or breaking down atoms, inspiring our youth to get a sense of what discovery is all about.

Sadly, Mr. Wizard passed away roughly a year ago — let’s keep his memory alive by making science cool again.

2. If you look at Revkin’s first graph, it is quickly evident that non-defense energy R&D spending has generally plummeted from the Carter days of solar panels on the White House.  There is no paucity of federal money laying around for R&D, as you can see in the doubling of NIH funding between 1998-2003.  Now it’s never easy to reappropriate funds, especially from something like health research, but we ought to seriously reconsider our funding priorities intensive to R&D, as well as extensive total R&D funding decisions.

3. The Pentagon receives more than half of all federal basic research outlays.  As we know, cutting defense spending is a politically tricky situation.  However, a nice back-door solution might be to earmark (gasp!) some funds to defense contractors performing energy-relevant basic research (e.g. material science, metallurgical engineering).  Defense is already looking for ways to improve energy efficiency in their operations for obvious reasons.

4. Basic research is crucial.  Why does it seem really unbelievable that some day we might get our energy largely carbon-free?  Because no one has figured out how.  And funding late-stage development is not the way to uncover the transformational technologies we need.  First, private firms ought to be funding a nearly-optimal level because the returns are largely appropriable.  Second, the government can fund failed pie-in-the-sky research over and over because, well, it’s the government.  Clearly, Congress is not concerned about turning a profit (surplus).  However, it must be clear that the viability of any entity designed to encourage basic research is not to be evaluated by strict metrics related to success rate.

These days, Obama seems to be playing Santa Claus in the minds of everyone left of conservative.  I guess you can add my wish list to the pile.

One Response to “Intellectual Infrastructure”

  1. Colin said

    This guy is still waiting for funding:

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