Third Debate: Basic Research Not Enough to Spur Energy Innovation

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Last night marked the third and final presidential debate of the 2012 election, and was the first time since 1984 that climate change went unmentioned by the presidential candidates in any of the debates. (“Obviously there are only so many [topics] you can get to,” debate moderator Bob Schieffer noted afterwards. “I had questions about climate change to talk about.”) The election has generally been devoid of serious discussion of climate change and energy innovation, and candidates and moderators alike avoided both the issues in the first and second presidential debates of this cycle as well. Beyond recalling the same rhetoric about energy security used in the last two debates, however, this discussion did highlight the candidates’ positions on federally-funded basic research.

The president observed that “if we’re not making investments in education and basic research, which is not something that the private sector is doing at a sufficient pace right now and has never done, then we will lose the [lead] in things like clean energy technology.” He was right to make the link between smart government investment and technology development, but wrong to focus on basic research. (Governor Romney’s campaign has made similar pronouncements; his economic plan states that “As president, Mitt Romney will redirect clean energy spending towards basic research”).

But as ITIF’s Winning the Race 2012 memo on clean energy policy for the next administration states, “Funding basic clean energy research is not enough:”

Clean energy innovation is often confused with supporting basic energy research alone. But this misreads the nature of innovation, where there are often no sharp lines between basic and applied research. We need more research, period. And the research needs to be “strategic:” funded with the goal of getting clean energy breakthroughs. Some of this may be very early stage research in the behavior of nano particles while some might be on which catalyst best generates electricity in a battery. We also need a system that better helps get research discoveries over the so-called “valleys of death” to the marketplace. Addressing this policy gap not only requires public investment, but also requires reforming publicly funded research institutions. Transferring clean technologies to market and partnering with industry to commercialize new ideas should be a fundamental goal of federally-funded research.

Recognizing the value of research at all stages of technology development will be essential for the next U.S. president, whether it be President Obama or Governor Romney. The presidential debates may be over and the 2012 campaign season may be drawing to a close, but the global clean energy race continues, and so should informed, public debate over how the U.S. can win that race.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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About the author

Matthew Stepp is a Senior Analyst with the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) specializing in climate change and clean energy policy. His research interests include clean energy technology development, climate science policy development, transportation policy, and the role innovation has in economic growth.