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Expanding Horizons

From energy and climate to cancer and aerospace, the Obama white house has ambitious research plans. But not all win favor with skeptics in Congress.

John Holdren likes to say that in using science to turn national challenges into opportunities, President Obama "gets it. . . . He's excited by it, he understands it, you can see him light up when the topic comes onto the table." If the White House science adviser himself lights up as he says this, it's easy to see why: Starting with the stimulus package enacted in February, Obama has begun the biggest federal research investment in history, one he hopes will replicate the "outpouring of curiosity and creativity" that accompanied the Apollo space program. Science, he told the National Academy of Sciences in April, "is more essential for our prosperity, our security, our health, our environment, and our quality of life than it has ever been before."

Clean, domestic sources of energy, which Obama deems "this generation's great project," clearly get top priority, along with deep cuts in climate-altering carbon emissions. Energy research ranges from biofuels to nano-engineered photovoltaic solar collectors, new batteries, and closing the nuclear fuel cycle. But the Obama team also seeks a "smart grid"; more comprehensive monitoring of the Earth's climate, land, and water; a streamlined system of medical diagnosis and health-care delivery; breakthroughs against cancer and advances in biomedicine; enhanced cyber security; and new types of air transport. And it has pledged strong support for basic research — which is generally underfunded by the private sector — to probe mysteries of nature and the universe.

“If we are smart and we are aggressive, we will reshape Michigan’s economy.” – Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm

Never Waste a Crisis

After years of flat R&D budgets and what many perceived as insufficient respect for science during the Bush administration, Obama's priorities and personnel choices have drawn praise from academics, although Congress has treated some of his policy initiatives warily. In early signals of his commitment to science, Obama lifted his predecessor's restrictions on stem-cell research and assembled a scientific and engineering brain trust in key positions. It includes energy Secretary Steven Chu, a Nobel laureate physicist who formerly directed the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory; William Brinkman, a Princeton physicist who now directs the Energy Department’s Office of Science; Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, a Tulane- and Princeton-trained chemical engineer; Energy Under Secretary Kristina Johnson, former engineering dean at Duke and provost of Johns Hopkins; information technology chief Aneesh Chopra, former Virginia secretary of technology; and marine ecologist Jane Lubchenco, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

At the nexus is Holdren, who is both an assistant to the president and director of the statutory Office of Science and Technology Policy. Obama’s enthusiasm for science gives the MIT- and Stanford-educated physicist a level of influence not seen in a science adviser since Jerome Wiesner counseled John F. Kennedy on the U.S.–Soviet nuclear test ban. Holdren’s March 20 confirmation by the Senate came one month after Congress enacted the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which was crafted largely along White House-approved lines and handed the administration $50 billion to spend on science. The windfall stems from Obama's response to the recession and financial turmoil that greeted his arrival in the Oval Office. "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste," Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel famously told Wall Street Journal editors and top corporate executives soon after last November's election. Seizing on Congress's willingness to stimulate the economy with extra spending, Obama determined not just to create jobs but to steer the nation in a new direction, with long-term federal investments in research and new technology.

In an interview, Holdren sounds as intent as Emmanuel on not wasting an opportunity. "A number of things are clearly going to be very important," he says, becoming animated. "One is carbon capture and sequestration, without which it's very hard to achieve any sort of emissions [reduction] trajectory that's likely to lead to satisfactory outcomes. There are big potentials in advanced solar energy technologies of various kinds, big potentials in advanced biofuels, including using genetically engineered bugs to process photosynthetic materials into attractive fuels. A lot of very smart folks have been working on that without enough money, and that's going to be boosted."

"Battery technology is obviously a huge deal," Holdren goes on. "We're going to get to plug-in hybrids and, ultimately, all-electric cars with even better batteries.... We ought to be putting a lot of wind turbines in the upper plains, and we need some new transmission lines to get that [electricity] to the load centers.”

Holdren argues that the country must spend more to develop cleaner energy sources because, for one thing, the energy industry spends less than 1 percent of its revenues on R&D. Industry as a whole spends about 4 percent, and high-tech industries spend anywhere from 8 percent to 15 percent. That, Holdren says with an almost scolding tone, makes energy the least R&D-intensive industry of all.

With a commitment to spending $150 billion over the next decade on advanced energy technologies, the administration is restructuring how research is managed. Energy Secretary Chu has stirred the most controversy on Capitol Hill by creating three new entities:

1. ARPA-E, modeled on the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which Chu says will explore "potentially revolutionary technologies that are too risky" for industry.

2. Energy Frontier Research Centers, located primarily at universities, focusing on basic scientific obstacles to energy breakthroughs.

3. Regional energy hubs, interdisciplinary collaborations of scientists from universities, national laboratories, and industry, managed in such a way that allows research to progress quickly.

The biggest budget increases are aimed at solar, to take advantage of anticipated breakthroughs. But nuclear energy needs to be in the research mix. Holdren believes, because it's one of the few options available for truly drastic cuts in carbon dioxide output. "You gotta make it cheaper," Holdren says. "You gotta make it safer, you gotta make it more proliferation-resistant, and you gotta figure out what you're going to do with the waste." In fact, Chu argues that the proportion of U.S. power drawn from nuclear plants — currently 20 percent — should be increased. He sees a "great opportunity" in research aimed at closing the fuel cycle. "We have to be looking towards developing a new generation of reactors" capable of harnessing much more of the nuclear fuel than is now used, says Chu.

“It would be very difficult for a state to pull this off if it didn’t have the support of its engineering colleges; and this is a state that does.” - Timothy Schulz, Dean of Engineering, Michigan Technological University

While an 80 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2050 is a commonly voiced goal, climate scientists are well aware that many more decades of warming and sea-level rise are certain to require even deeper cuts in carbon output. "What are we going to do for an encore?" Holdren asks. "We're going to need some big contributors to continue this downard trajectory after 2050," he continues, "and there aren't so many really long-term options. We need to work on the solar option, we need to see if we can fix the liabilities that have hindered the expansion of fission, and we need to see if we can make fusion work."

Yes, fusion, the hypothetical power source that, as Holdren himself notes, in each decade has been declared further in the future than in the previous decade. Getting the controlled, sustainable fusion needed for commercial power is still “a very, very hard nut to crack,” Chu says, though he has noted a resurgence of hybrid solutions combining fusion and fission. To make real progress, according to Holdren, fusion research should be funded at about $750 million a year; it could be justified purely as basic research, but it could also turn out to be practical.

Land Use, Water, and Health

Along with promoting energy technologies, the administration is pushing to get a better handle on what’s actually happening to the Earth.

“We need to improve both our infrastructure and our activity in environmental monitoring,” Holdren says. “It is immensely important that we be able to monitor and understand what’s actually happening on the planet. It’s not just about climate; it’s about land use, it’s about water, it’s about vegetation. I think the second-biggest environmental challenge we face after climate change … is the intensifying competition for the land, water, and vegetation of the planet among the different human uses of those.”

To know what is happening – and how well mitigation efforts might be working – the administration wants to expand Earth observation activities both from space and on land and to improve the interpretation of collected data. One pressing need is to deal with the loss of observation ability caused by a coming gap in coverage by the Ice, Cloud, and land Elevation Satellite (ICESat), a prime source of evidence on retreating ice caps and glaciers. ICESat is expected to fail before a successor can be launched in 2014.

For all the planet-climate-energy enthusiasm, the Obama science budget hardly neglects other fields of research. The other big winner is biomedical research. The National Institutes of Health is receiving $10.4 billion in stimulus money, topping the $7.15 billion going to all other science agencies. Specific research areas that might benefit from this funding are difficult to pinpoint, although Obama has mentioned a sustained effort to double cancer research and the development of advanced prosthetics. NIH has said it will spend $8.2 billion of its windfall on a wide range of research projects whose grant proposals were already in the system and that could deliver results within two years.

“The president wants to see better health outcomes for Americans at lower cost,” Holdren says. “And the only way we’re going to get to that combination … is through science and innovation in the healthcare delivery system, as well as in the fundamental science of identification and treatment and prevention.”

The computerized health information system that Obama cited repeatedly during the campaign figures prominently in the stimulus spending, garnering a startling $19 billion, which is not counted as R&D funding. Some $17 billion of that amount is for what the budget calls “temporary incentive payments” to doctors and hospitals to switch over. Much of the other $2 billion is for software engineering to develop a unified national system linking all healthcare providers.

Other research the administration is pursuing includes:

Carbon capture and storage Because fossil fuel is almost certain to dominate the world’s energy supply for at least 50 more years, ways of capturing carbon dioxide and stashing it for the long term are of great interest, especially if the cost is manageable. The most plausible scenarios involve separating CO2 from stack gases, compressing it to a liquid, and shipping it to storage sites deep underground or on the ocean floor. Another option is to fix the CO2 into inorganic carbonates. Injection underground would rely on existing technologies, already used on a small scale, but ocean storage is still in the research stage.

Advanced photovoltaics To improve existing technology, researchers are trying to make silicon crystals cheaper and to raise their conversion efficiency. Others are working on very different technologies based on thin films and nanoparticles. One avenue involves bio-photovoltaics—harnessing chlorophyll or another of the light-sensitive molecular complexes extracted from algae.

Biofuels from genetically engineered microbes Yeasts naturally eat various carbohydrates and excrete ethanol, but the energy needed to feed the bugs corn is about equal to the energy derived from ethanol. Other carb sources, such as sugar cane, do much better but still compete with food production for acreage. So one goal is to genetically modify yeasts to digest cellulose, a byproduct of several industries, including timber. A few labs are modifying bacteria to produce a mix of hydrocarbons similar to crude oil, and some are even trying to make bacteria that excrete gasoline itself.

Advanced battery technology The stimulus package earmarked $2 billion in grants to ramp up U.S.-based manufacture of advanced batteries to compete with Asia. Significant advances in lithium-ion batteries have been achieved, but several drawbacks - including short battery lifetime and propensity to catch fire if damaged - limit the field. Several labs are working on modified versions of lithium-ion to overcome such deal killers.

Smart grid If the country is to make more use of solar and wind power, it needs a way to move the electricity from where the sun shines most reliably and the winds blow strongest and longest to where the juice is needed. The goal is a national grid that could shift electricity across thousands of miles, distributing the load so that no one supplier is overtaxed and few power stations are underused. A smart grid would reach into homes, offices, and factories to turn down power-hungry appliances as needed.

Next-generation air transport The first "A" in NASA's acronym still stands for "aeronautics." For several years, the agency has been working on "a silent, carbonless airplane," a program that has gained new visibility under Obama. The goal is a plane that can take off and land without making much noise beyond airport boundaries. The fuel would emit carbon but no more than was removed from the atmosphere to make it. NASA says early advances will involve reducing weight and drag in "tube and wing" planes, while later improvements are expected in fuselages that blend wing and body.

Academics Upbeat, Congress Less So

The response from academe? “I couldn’t be more pleased,” Jared Cohon, president of Carnegie Mellon University, says of Obama’s approach to science. “Here’s a president who really seems to understand the importance of basic research.” Still, he faults the administration for a lack of emphasis on clean coal technology. “We’re in the middle of the Saudi Arabia of coal, so I think major research on clean coal technology is definitely called for.”

Other academic leaders were also generally upbeat. Obama, says Georgia Tech President G.P. “Bud” Peterson, “has made a serious commitment to funding research and development and has backed it up in his first budget request, as well as through his understanding that investments in R&D can stimulate the economy and aid in our recovery.” Subra Suresh, dean of engineering at MIT, reports that students are galvanized by the prominence and prestige Obama has given to science and engineering. “This energizes and motivates and inspires students,” he says. And Charles M. Vest, the former MIT president who heads the National Academy of Engineering, says the administration’s emphasis on energy and climate “is absolutely appropriate” across the spectrum, from such “low-hanging fruit as improving the energy efficiency of buildings to a 21st-century smart grid, which we have to have if we are going to bring in various kinds of alternative sources of electricity.”

But Vest and other leaders cite a potential problem — a boom-and-bust cycle started by the huge funding boost from the stimulus package, followed by a return to much lower spending by science agencies. Their worry is not erased by pledges from both Congress and the president to double funding by 2016 for the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Department of Energy’s Office of Science. Research projects launched by the 2009 stimulus package could still run out of money in the near future.

Grant agencies and universities face a burden of assigning priorities and preparing for leaner years to come. Vest, for one, argues that the bulk of the stimulus money should go not to fund ordinary research proposals but to build science and engineering infrastructure that will last for many years. He adds, “The big challenge to the country, in my view, is to achieve a modest but absolutely steady growth rate in physical science and engineering research for the next decade or so.”

Thus far, the Obama science team’s priorities have won more points with academics than with congressional leaders. On Capitol Hill, the rubber meets the road in the appropriations committees, which cut funding for Chu’s ARPA-E and provided money for, at most, a few of his eight energy research hubs. House members complained that the administration had failed to offer a clear explanation of what the hubs would do and how they would differ from other programs. In midsummer, Holdren’s office expected more funding as the budget process moved forward. Congress also restored $100 million Chu cut from hydrogen research. Survival of a new education program called RE-ENERGYSE (REgaining our ENERGY, Science and Engineering Edge), which would fund a range of clean-energy scholarships, fellowships, and other programs at various academic levels, appeared to be in doubt. Al Teich, longtime director of science and policy programs at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, says, “I think we’ve got a better chance now than we have had in a long time,” but adds: “Scientists need to make their best case.… They need to demonstrate that the policies based on science are the ones that are likely to be the most successful and to have the most beneficial results for the society as a whole.”

Engineers and scientists might say they have always tried to do that. But now, as evidenced by Obama’s buoyant expression when talk turns to science, the White House is aligned with the research community.

Boyce Rensberger is a science writer based in Maryland.




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