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Chu Lays Out Ambitious Plan for Energy Research

Secretary of Energy Steven Chu hopes to ramp up energy research in the coming years both within the Department of Energy and in the private sector. He laid out his vision of a more research-intensive future in early August, at the first meeting of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST).

A major part of Secretary Chu’s plan to bolster energy research is to establish eight “Energy Innovation Hubs” inside the DOE. These innovation hubs, modeled after Bell Labs where Chu used to work, would each focus on solving a specific energy problem facing the country. They would concentrate on issues that range from improving carbon capture and sequestration techniques, updating the grid, or creating new extreme materials. He hopes that these hubs will attract some of the brightest scientific minds to help solve the nation’s energy challenges.

However these proposed hubs were recently dealt a legislative blow in Congress. The Senate only approved funding for three hubs in 2010’s budget, while the House authorized only one. Chu said that he hopes when the two budgets are reconciled, the Senate version prevails and three of the hubs are funded.

“First I had trouble convincing the House this was a good idea,” Chu said, adding that he made the mistake of not appealing to the members of congress for funding in person. He said also that he plans to make a more effective, personal plea for their inclusion in the FY2011 budget.

In addition to sponsoring more research within the department, Chu also hopes to bring more scientific scrutiny to applications for government research grants. He said that though most of the DOE grants go to legitimate research, some researchers knew how to game the system and receive unwarranted funding. He referred to several instances in recent years when researchers received large amounts of money to sponsor frivolous or unnecessary research.

“I would love PCAST to look at the [Department of Energy] and especially the applied areas,” Chu said. “What have we done right? And I want you to tell me what we have done wrong,” adding also, “Just don’t fund things that violate the second law of thermodynamics.”

Though much of what Chu is proposing puts a strong emphasis on narrowly focused, mission directed research, he said that he has no plans on cutting off funding for basic science, including astrophysics, cosmology and material sciences.

“That’s good stuff,” Chu said, “Actually having something to focus the mind is not so bad.”

Chu also asked the council to look into ways to encourage more research in the private sector. He said economic factors often impede a company’s ability to invest in long term projects, even if they show promise. Wall Street analysts can be sharply critical of large amounts of money devoted to research, causing the company to shy away from continuing it.

“I have heard time and time again: A company wants to do a research program, run the R & D for four of five years, the analyst says this is no good, and the stock gets punished. Then the board and CEO of the company have to weigh this, and in the end pay attention to the stock prices.” He said, adding that companies in other parts of the world had been successful in this way, “Most of lithium ion batteries come from Asia. Invented in the United States and commercialized by Sony. It took a while for Sony to commercialize this, but they had a stick-to-itiveness and perhaps weren’t punished as much.”  

To help encourage this kind of research, the department announced in August it will dole out $37 million in stimulus spending to small businesses’ research programs. Working through its Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer programs, the department will distribute up to $150,000 to each qualified company to invest in technologies ranging from power plant cooling to gas turbine and solar technology. Each company will have six months to develop the viability of their work before having to apply for the second phase of grants.

At the PCAST meeting, Chu emphasized that his major focus is on turning scientific discoveries into practical, mass market applications.

“It’s not about writing research papers anymore,” Chu said, “You’ve got to deliver the goods.”

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Editor: Alan Chodos