Big Government Science Escapes Being Drowned In Bathtub

A year of threats from the House had thousands of government scientists expecting cuts as deep as 20 percent by those determined to drown government in the bathwater. But at the last minute, in December’s final budget, Senate Democrats were able to bring the science and energy research funding levels much closer to the Obama administration budget requests. In FY2012 appropriations – passed after initial House Republican tantrums to prevent a wage-earners’ payroll tax holiday within it – ”Big Government” science escaped the hits Republican lawmakers had threatened.

The Department of Energy’s Office of Science got a small increase to $4.889 billion, below the Obama administration’s request for $5.4 billion, but a slight increase of $46 million. ARPA-E got $275 million, half the administration’s request of $550 million [PDF], but an increase over its 2011 level of $180 million, and much higher than the Republican House bill that sought to cut ARPA-E funding to $100 million (which would have been just one quarter of the $400 million that the Democratic House had initially funded the program at in 2009).

Department of Energy, ARPA-E

image via U.S. Department of Energy

Researchers had expected 6 percent cuts in funding earlier this year. ”We won’t have to shut down our facilities,” Eric Isaacs, director of Argonne National Laboratory told Science Insider in April when a compromise was hammered out. “We may have to adjust how we operate them, but we won’t have to shut them down.”

Any advanced civilization requires taxpayer-funded science at the government level, because the challenges are too complex to be solved by any one company. At the government level, scientists can focus on the deep level of pure research that eventually creates the breakthroughs that benefit many industries at once. Private investors need marketable results much faster. This is why Bill Gates and GE’s Jeff Immelt recommended funding ARPA-E at $1 billion this year.

A good illustration of why we should not reduce funding for government science is the research being done at Argonne National Laboratory on reducing the energy needed by millions of different catalysts.

The reason that finding more efficient catalysts is essential, is that catalysts reduce the energy that it takes to convert one thing into another. Making things out of other things is one of the marks of an advanced civilization. But we are entering the 21st century carbon-constrained age in which we must do more with less energy.

Catalysts speed up chemical reactions by reducing the amount of energy you need to turn one thing into another. We need to turn a lot of materials into other ones, and we need to cut the energy we use to do it as well. Reducing the energy intensity of production is essential to future manufacturing.

For example, with the catalysts we use now to make alkenes out of ethane and propane – that we use to make plastic – this process uses 3 percent of all the energy used in the U.S. each year. As oil declines, devising new materials to make new kinds of plastics will be necessary, and we need to do the research now to find the most energy-efficient catalysts to make these new materials.

It is difficult to do advanced research in material catalysts unless you can get down to the atomic level to see what is happening during a reaction. Big scientific facilities like Argonne’s Advanced Photon Source are needed, which no one company could afford.

Potential configurations for new catalysts can run to thousands of combinations. Argonne’s Blue Gene/P supercomputer is able to speed up finding new catalysts by unlocking the complicated configuration of math, physics and chemistry needed to do a better job.

Developing clean energy itself benefits from catalyst searches done at Argonne. Government scientists have made progress in finding a better, more energy efficient catalyst to break down cellulose for fuel out of waste biomass like switchgrass and tree waste, and this month made a breakthrough in making a better catalyst for hydrogen.

But with vastly more funding from the fossil fuel industry in 2012, due to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, Democrats will likely lose the Senate in 2012 to proxies for the richest industry on the planet, similar to the new House members elected in 2010. So while the Democratic Senate was able to prevent the anti-science House bills from becoming law in 2011, we will likely not have that protection in the future.

It is essential for our future prosperity that Republican voters begin to understand the civilization-level risks that their congressional choices expose us to in a much more globally competitive 21st century.

The “Big Government” that they are instructed to drown in the bathtub is not some imagined wasteful bureaucracy, but includes pure research that private companies cannot afford to do, that is the foundation of our advanced civilization. In the middle of the 20th century, when we had much higher levels of taxation and correspondingly higher levels of funding, public science led to 130 Nobel Prizes and breakthroughs like vaccinations and the internet browser.

Some examples of breakthroughs by government scientists that we have covered at EarthTechling include key research into lithium-air batteries, a boost for solar power from luminescent concentrators and the development of new EV batteries for the auto industry.

Susan Kraemer enjoys writing to publicize the many great solutions for climate change that we can find if we just put our minds to it. She covers renewable policy and clean energy for CleanTechnica and GreenProphet and green building at HomeDesignFind. She recently moved home to Waiheke Island where her writing is now powered by the 80% renewable electricity that powers New Zealand.