Now's not the time to cut!I'm not the biggest fan of the products that Microsoft has created under Bill Gates, and their dirty tactics against open source/free software are still stuck in my throat even after all these years. But despite all of this, I can't help but recognize that since Bill Gates left the role of CEO of Microsoft, he has become one of the world's greatest philanthropists, and has helped move the whole field forward by focusing on the problems that can have an impact on the biggest number of lives, and demanding accountability every step of the way thanks to common sense principles that are too often forgotten (you shouldn't throw money at a problem if you are not getting results, you should not tolerate wasted resources just because it's charity, you should focus on number of lives saved and transformed rather than on which causes are the most glamourous, etc).
Gates's latest plea, in a guest editorial in Science magazine (subscription required), is for more energy research & development by the U.S. government:
[Gates suggests] that the U.S. should more than triple its R&D investment to US$16 billion. The federal government currently spends roughly $5 billion annually. Inadequate funding has led to a 75 percent reduction in federal research over the past three decades, he wrote.
He asked that Congress muster political courage and be willing to spend more money even if doing do is unpopular right now. Failure to invest would jeopardize America’s national interest and risk its position in the global clean energy industry, Gates argued. (source)
Clean Energy LeverageSadly, Solyndra’s bankruptcy will probably make it harder to argue for more energy R&D, but in the grand scheme of thing, what really matters is the amount of leverage that breakthroughs in this area can provide. There's a lot of research being done in the private sector, and that's great, but a lot of it is more short-term oriented than what government R&D should focus on.
High-risk, high-reward clean energy projects could be funded for relatively small sums compared to the benefits that they could provide if they pay off, and compared to all of the money spent on things like the military When you look at the cost of wars in the Middle-East just in the past decade, asking for the energy R&D budget to be tripled to $16 billion (from $5 billion) isn't too much to ask.
As I mentioned above, the leverage with R&D can be tremendous. It might take a while and lots of money to get to a breakthrough, but once you achieve it, it's there for all the world to use forever. Humanity's energy needs are so vast that even relatively small improvements in costs and scale for clean energy production can compound to very big effects on ecosystems. And we have to face the fact that without cheap clean energy, we won't solve our environmental (and many social) problems.