The Washington Post’s recent article on the “The rise and fall of the U.S. wind industry, in one chart” showed the correlation between the federal wind production tax credit (PTC) and annual installations of wind. When the credit is allowed to expire, installations plummet. When it is renewed, a boom period ensues. This has resulted in an uneven, “saw-tooth” pattern of wind growth that among other things generates anxiety about the future of the market. How, might you ask, does this compare to China – where wind capacity doubled for four of the last six years? Here’s one chart:
Try for a moment to imagine how many different materials there are in the technologies that you use every day. Most cell phones, for example, contain materials like indium, gallium, silicon, tantalum, lithium and nedodymium, which probably didn’t make your list. Moreover, new and complex technologies necessitate the use of increasingly exotic materials; an “exotic” material being located in a zone of the periodic table at which you have probably never looked (neodymium is perhaps one of them!).But why should we care about some elements that many of us didn’t even know existed? We should care because the supply of many of these so-called “critical materials” is constrained or difficult to predict, often due to scarcity, political instability in the countries where they are produced, or environmental concerns related to their extraction. Without action to resolve the issues affecting critical element supply, the technological progress we currently enjoy may be interrupted. Continue reading
Currently, there are between 20,000 and 30,000 nuclear weapons in the world [1, 2]. Of these, over 1,500 are deployable by the two largest nuclear weapons states, the U.S. and Russia .
We often hear how a world without nuclear weapons will enhance global security and safety and that we are on our way to a goal of a world without them. As put forward by President Obama in his 2009 speech in Prague, the U.S. is committed to a world “free of nuclear weapons.” However, President Obama admitted this goal might be many years away and possibly not feasible in his lifetime.
Though most of us have heard about the inherent dangers of large numbers of nuclear weapons, there is a flip side to this argument that we rarely (if ever) hear.
I like this New York Times piece describing a scientific experiment and its clashes with regulation about geoengineering because it highlights the unavoidable relationship of policy, scientific exploration, the economy, and the environment. “Mitigating climate change” has traditionally been separated into two tracks: finding less polluting sources of energy and fixing the negative effects we are witnessing. I would argue that the latter is treating the symptoms while the former is treating the cause, but a combined approach is likely where we will end up (think treating diseases in medicine). Both, however, sit at the intersection of technology development, economic benefits, environmental externalities and government regulation and while “clean energy” has traditionally received the majority of the media and political attention, I think geoengineering will begin to play a bigger role in the future.
In a summary of the article, entrepreneur Russ George claims he was conducting a scientific inquiry while simultaneously helping fishermen from an island off British Columbia. He added about 100 tons of iron to the ocean and studied the increased growth of plankton which is hoped to subsequently improve the salmon population for the fishermen. He did this with no government oversight and may have breached regulation regarding geoengineering.
What strikes me about this article is the following:
(1) George’s actions have disrupted an ecosystem that people may assume was previously in its natural state. I think (though I don’t know for a fact) that the region is probably suffering from the effects of overfishing, reduced fish population and a disruption of the local food chain. Can he argue that he is just helping restore the ecosystem to its initial balance?
(2) 100 tons sounds like a whole lot of iron, but let’s put this in context of the ocean. A quick Google search tells me that iron powder has a density of about 3 grams per cubic centimeter, or 187 pounds per cubic foot. That means that George dumped about 1070 square feet of iron. That might sound like a lot, but now let’s say that George and his team scattered iron in square region that is a quarter mile by quarter mile and one mile deep (to be conservative). That space has a volume of 9,199,872,000 square feet of water. The iron is less than 0.000000116th of the volume of water.
(3) Despite being such a small fraction of the water volume, it is going to have an effect on the ecosystems (remember, the whole point was to spur plankton growth). Though studies of eutrophication (nutrient enrichment) definitely exist, I would argue that we know only a small fraction of the ultimate effect of this action. Recall that there was time when we did not know that smoking cigarettes was bad for health or that CFCs contributed to ozone depletion.
(4) Of course, it is not even the 100 tons of iron that is the problem but the matter of an entity making changes to the environment that have future implications for all inhabitants that we do not fully understand. George claims he is helping a group of fisherman, but is this a slippery slope where the next “necessary” thing we do (to spur economic growth, etc) hurts the planet more than it helps? I am suddenly and startlingly reminded of the current political debate about air emission regulation for power plants.
So in full disclosure, I don’t know very much about geoengineering yet, but I plan to post more as I learn more. In the meantime, I am excited to read this book, Hack the Planet by Eli Kintisch, which explores the argument of geoengineering.
Mike McGeary, Engine Advocacy
Mike McGeary is the Political Director and Senior Strategist of Engine Advocacy, a coalition of member startups dedicated to educating policymakers on the value of American innovation and entrepreneurship as well as promoting the importance of public policy among startups and entrepreneurs in the United States. He is also a strategist with Hattery Labs, a San Francisco-based design and innovation consultancy within which Engine was born. Mike recently took some time out of his schedule to speak with me about his work and why technology policy is critical to maintaining American competitiveness in the long term.
Tell me about your work with Engine Advocacy.
We started Engine about a year ago when I was at Hattery. The thought was that we [at Hattery] were going to make investments for early stage companies, and we realized there wasn’t a voice for this community. We wanted to make sure that this community’s needs were represented. As we were really getting ramped up and building our presence, we started getting calls on SOPA and it was off to the races. We’ve worked on things from the JOBS Act to CISPA and STEM visas. All things are focused on what can help this community quickly and with lasting effect.
In your opinion, what are the top 3 issues facing startups and entrepreneurs in America, and what is actually being discussed in Washington?
Everything comes back to jobs–the difference is how these issues are framed around creating jobs. Immigration is absolutely vital in this community no matter where you are. It doesn’t matter if you’re building a startup in San Francisco or Boulder or Boise; we’re literally just sending jobs overseas. Immigration’s the top line and we have to find better solutions there.
Another one that keeps coming up is patents. America Invents was supposed to fix some of this and it really didn’t do a lot in terms of software patents. Now we’re going back and seeing what can we do. These [software] patents are fundamentally different from biotech and pharma patents in terms of who has ownership and what exactly is covered under the patent. The question is, how do we make this easier and not stunt innovation going forward?
Lastly, education. Our team at Engine can project out the growth trajectory now–seven to eight years from now, [education] is what’s going to power the American economy, but if we don’t invest in education and fill in the labor gap, there’s a huge delta there when we get to 2020 between the level of education of our citizens and the available jobs to fill.
Everything comes back to jobs, but our argument is that to create jobs, you have to invest in the startup community. We have to fix the structural problems that we’ve built with the current regulatory regimes. We can get there; our argument is, “Work with us and let us help you get there.”
What do you think are the biggest policy barriers to technology entrepreneurship, regardless of field? What’s currently being done to address these barriers?
It’s understanding what a startup community looks like. We have to educate both [entrepreneurs and policymakers]; we have to go to the government and say we’re different than traditional businesses and large technology companies. Everybody wants to be the next Facebook or Apple or Google, but we’re not there yet. We have to be better at educating policymakers on what it means to be in San Francisco hacking together something at a coffee shop. That is not something that Washington understands, and entrepreneurs don’t understand the deliberateness of government and the challenge for policymakers in building consensus among varied constituencies. We have to show policymakers how all these issues tie together and affect the economy at large.
Honestly, it’s an engineering view. All the systems have to work together for the entire system to work. Moving the system takes time. We’re talking to these policymakers about the things we believe in and the solutions that can work.
What are your thoughts on the current administration’s stance on cultivating innovation and entrepreneurship in the United States?
Making Todd Park [the Chief Technology Officer of the White House] has been huge. He was in San Francisco for the Code for America Summit and spends a lot of time in San Francisco engaging with the tech industry. Learning lessons from Silicon Valley and the tech industry is going to be imperative for building entrepreneurial communities across the country, and that’s also has to come with a scientific, technologically focused background like what Todd offers.
How can students get involved?
First, if you are of the entrepreneurial mind and you have something you’re working on, come join Engine. We’ll be doing events all over the country so look out for that.
However, your focus in entrepreneurship should not be on policy. Know that there are organizations like us that are doing this work for you. Go work on your product. If there’s an issue that’s important to you, we’ll tell your story. Know that we’re trying to make life easier for you so that you can change the world.
New cars are being put on the road in Chinese cities at an unprecedented rate, causing new traffic congestion challenges across the country. Furthermore, Chinese cities are typically denser than their Western counterparts, the driving skills of newly licensed motorists are often poor, and illegally parked cars clog shoulders and sidewalks. All of these factors give Beijing in particular the dubious distinction of the world’s worst commute. They also add to the city’s traffic-related woes as smoggy skies hinder visibility and contribute to respiratory health issues for residents.
During my graduate studies at MIT, I would often hear the same story from my friends that were international students–many of them wished to pursue their careers in the United States upon graduation, but were finding it difficult due to visa and immigration issues. During this election season, both the Obama and Romney campaigns have discussed how they would ensure that the United States remains the world leader in innovation and scientific research (see Mark Staples’ previous ScienceWonks post). Immigration issues have also traditionally been a hot topic in the political arena. A recent example is the DREAMAct which would have enabled a path to citizenship for eligible children of undocumented immigrants, and although the legislation passed the House, it failed to reach the 60-vote threshold to end debate on the Senate floor.
Legislation has recently been introduced in both the House and the Senate that focuses on allowing talented international students studying in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields to stay in the United States after graduation. A breakdown of all three bills, along with their legislative sponsor, appears in the chart below.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-NY), Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE)
Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX)
Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA)
Additional 55,000 green cards available over a 2-year pilot program
Up to 55,000 green cards available over a 2-year pilot program
Additional 50,000 green cards available via new green card category “EB-6” over a 2-year pilot program
The key difference between the Republican House bill and the Democratic House bill is that the Republican proposal contained a measure to eliminate the diversity visa program. This is important because it is one of the few pathways for immigrants to legally attain citizenship in the United States. This program is also an attempt to ensure immigrant diversity by establishing a lottery to randomly distribute permanent residence or “green card” visas among immigrants from countries that are not largely represented in the United States. Additionally, the elimination of this program is how the Republican proposal intends to make available the 55,000 green card visas for STEM graduates. Both Democratic proposals would create additional green card visas for STEM graduates without eliminating the diversity visa bill program already in existence. As a result, the Republican bill failed last week to pass the House by a vote of 257-158, largely along party lines because of the proposal’s intent to eliminate the diversity visa program.
There is overwhelming bipartisan support for legislation to help talented international students stay legally in the United States, as well as support from the tech industry and universities across the country. While I’m disappointed to see that the Republican bill failed to pass the House, I remain hopeful that some sort of immigration reform for international STEM students will be passed in the near future. At the same time, I’m concerned with the timing of the various proposals, as I do not want Congress and the White House to be too hasty in their drafting and voting on the bill based on the national election cycle. Furthermore, I absolutely do not want this issue to become merely a soundbite for the election. I do think all of the discussion is healthy and demonstrates that the country recognizes the contributions that international students studying STEM fields have made. If the United States has invested in their education through research grants and money, it seems prudent to at least investigate how we can help persuade these students to stay in the United States and apply their acquired skills to help innovation flourish in this country.
The Obama administration is keeping quiet about climate policy leading up to the election, refusing to answer whether it will pursue a cap and trade policy if re-elected and remaining startlingly silent about global climate change. The Romney campaign believes that actions by President Obama have slowed economic growth, is not certain “what the nature of the threat of climate change is” and claims that energy efficiency is a clever ploy by the Democrats to enact expensive policy. I’ll leave it to the reader to decide, but I think it’s worth talking about what climate policy we do have and how the standards for both stationary and mobile sources came about in Washington.
To take a step back and put the recent rulings and debate in the context of the United States climate policy, I am going to provide a bit of history, a brief lesson in congressional legislation, and some personal commentary about what it all means. I welcome your opinions, feedback, and questions about this discussion in the comments section of this post.
I watched the first presidential debate today and the focus on jobs and growing the economy started me thinking back to a national conundrum we faced in 2011 and its repercussions today. Election mania has taken over and it has been a long time since 2011 and the Debt Ceiling crisis we thought was going to bankrupt the country. Remember that? If you recall, the way out of the deadlock surrounding how to raise the national debt ceiling was the Budget Control Act. This act raised the national debt ceiling and called for a decrease in the national debt of at least $2.1 billion over the coming 10 years. The cuts were to come from decreases in military spending combined with a plan that would be decided by a bipartisan debt-reduction committee (the reduction from the committee should amount to at least $1.2 trillion). Should they not agree, automatic cuts across the board of $1.2 trillion would go into effect (called sequestration). If you remember correctly, no agreement was reached and at the beginning of 2013, sequestration is set to go into effect.
What connected the dots for me between the debt ceiling crisis, sequestration and jobs was a recent report released by The Information Technology & Innovation Foundation (ITIF) quantifying how sequestration would affect government spending on science R&D and how, in turn, the economy would be affected. The study found that sequestration cuts to discretionary spending would result in an 8.8% (totaling 12.5 billion) cut over 2011 spending for federally funded R&D in 2013 with similar cuts in the following years. At this moment you may be tempted to say ‘8.8%?!? not that big of a deal, right?’, but the truth is that R&D is an important driver of the national economy. Federal R&D dollars contribute to the innovation in pharmaceuticals, renewable energy, and defense that have made the US a leader in technology and science. R&D also has spillover effects, meaning that research for a specific application could end up enabling a new and different technology (think memory foam, which was invented by NASA to absorb impact on astronaut takeoff and reentry and now resides in your mattress). The ITIF study estimated that the decrease in R&D funds from sequestration would result in a decrease in GDP of $203 to $860 billion dollars, depending on how you define what R&D spending would have been without sequestration. In terms of jobs, sequestration cuts would also result in the loss of 200,000 jobs in 2013.
You may wonder, well why wouldn’t private interests pick up the slack? And the answer is that research is a risky business. Profits aren’t always guaranteed. Plus, the government has the ability to invest in farfetched ideas with the hope that a few will pay off (take a look at the DARPA and ARPA-E programs that specialize in this type of R&D funding). Another area that private interests don’t venture into very often is basic science research, the government funds over 60% of all basic R&D; understandably private enterprises tend to focus on the development half of R&D.
R&D spending and sequestration may be small potatoes for the first presidential debate, but I do hope that along with their high praise for US small businesses, job creation, and science education the candidates are thinking about a major driver behind all of these crowd pleasers: research and development. Without cultivating our nation’s innovation and creativity with federal funding, we risk impairing our nation’s technological edge. Sequestration consisting of across the board spending cuts could be avoided, of course, if Congress and the President act. If presidential candidates want to continue to see the wheels of innovation churning out new money making, job creating technology, federal R&D should be maintained as an important component of our national economic recovery plan.
This week, MIT will host a presidential energy debate with senior advisors for the two candidates — Joseph Aldy (Obama) and Oren Cass (Romney). This post is part of a ScienceWonks series to raise awareness of the debate and critical issues facing our nation’s energy future.
Rhetoric about “getting tough” with China on trade is heating up during this election season as both parties try to articulate credible strategies for kick-starting the struggling U.S. economy. Not surprisingly, some of the most prominent recent examples of U.S. administration trade actions against China have been in the increasingly profitable clean energy sector, which totaled $263 billion globally in 2011. The U.S. is right to watch what China is doing on energy policy – and should continue to advocate for a level playing field – but perhaps in China’s impressive support for this industry there are also some lessons for a comprehensive U.S. national energy strategy. In this post, I will debunk some of the myths and miracles of China’s energy policy, making a case for U.S.-China cooperation (and healthy competition).