Thursday, May 30, 2013

Energy Speech by Lamar Alexander

Yesterday our local senator,  Lamar Alexander, gave a speech in Oak Ridge on America's energy future that I think came close to hitting the nail on the head. The full speech can be found here.

Having lived in Germany I  appreciate his assessment of the German energy mess. Germany adopted cap-and-trade,  started closing its nuclear power plants and became more dependent upon natural gas, buying both forms of energy from other countries rather than producing it on its own. The Germans are subsidizing wind and solar, but are building new coal plants in order to have enough reliable electricity. The end result is that Germany is a major carbon producer and also has the second-highest household electricity prices in the European Union.

More generally, Alexander's "four principles" are:

1. Cheaper, not more expensive, energy.
2. Clean, not just renewable, energy.
3. Research and development, not government mandates.
4. Free market, not government picking "winners and losers"

The only quibble with these I might have is over the "government mandates".
I can't see global CO2 control ever happening without there eventually being some kind of global treaty that all nations have to abide by, and that, of course, is a massive multi-government mandate.

But maybe I'm wrong? Conceivably CO2 reduction could happen naturally by voluntary application of principle 2? But by itself principle 2 contains no business incentive. More likely, if the R&D spending in principle 3  is biased towards clean energy, then this will naturally become cheaper and create business incentive.  Alexander recommends doubling the federal R&D outlay on energy research. Creating the necessary clean technology will lead to its widespread use.

Monday, May 20, 2013

500th BESC Bioenergy Publication

Congratulations to the Bioenergy Science Center (BESC) for its 500th publication. BESC has been up and running for about five years, at a cost of about $25M per year, so my rough calculation is that that makes about $250k per publication. Given the high overheads associated with the full cost recovery model that national labs must work with, that's competitive with the output from typical grants from other funding agencies.

Publication numbers don't tell the whole story, though. From what I can see from my smallish role in the organization,  BESC has been run in a particularly highly-managed and coordinated way. This contrasts with the ideal of the liberated, isolated researcher following his/her own flights of fancy to brilliant, unpredictable discoveries.  Rather, BESC researchers have been focussed on largely common questions concerning the recalcitrance of biomass to deconstruction and have delved deeply into them from a variety of angles. As a result BESC has carved out a distinctive niche, with a fruit of 500 interlinked, targeted publications. This shows how large centers, focussed on a theme of strong societal importance can function, a model of research that hardly existed 20 years ago. Furthermore, in the case of BESC, there were initial doubts as to whether the delocalization of the center (over the South East, Colorado and New England, for example) could ever lead to a high degree of effective coordination. These doubts have been dispelled:  BESC has shown how to do it, setting a clear precedent for highly integrated, geographically delocalized, targeted research by a large number of scientists.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Accountability and the National Science Foundation

Some of the research the National Science Foundation performs is suspected by some people as being a waste of taxpayer's money.  So, regularly there are initiatives in congress trying to improve the accountability of the NSF.   The latest suggests adding a fresh layer of bureaucracy after the peer review process to "solve the problem of so many questionable grants being awarded".  The proposal is to not fund  any research unless Congress certifies after the initial peer review that it addresses questions of economic development or national security. Well, the problem with that is that all NSF grants DO address questions of economic development or national security. 

The new initiative selected as examples five grants (out of about 10,000 awarded) suspected as being dubious. I quickly looked up two random abstracts of the five projects under question. It's clear to me that, if they are what they claim (and peer review is to make sure of this), these projects are of clear potential economic benefit.

One of them is a comparative network analysis of global social interactions. This has implications  for the spread of pathogens and public health countermeasures, for market research on the diffusion of innovations,  for social movement research on "domino effects" like those observed in the cascading collapse of the former Soviet Union and more recently in the Arab Spring (there's a national security interest), and  comparative studies of social capital and economic development. Computer scientists will benefit from comparative data that may be helpful for tailoring the design of online social network sites. 

The other is a study of a food safety scandal in China. Food safety scandals raise questions about complex and globalized food production and distribution systems, the impact on consumer health and well-being, and the global governance of food and health risks. Results of the project will increase knowledge of the transmission of food safety standards and contribute to public discussions about food safety and security in the U.S. and China, resulting in greater opportunities for improved food safety. 

These two would clearly appear to meet the criterion. My guess is the others are similarly useful. 

So where's the problem?  Is it that the Congressional office concerned simply didn't read the abstracts? Or that they can't see that, say, market research on the diffusion of innovations is of economic importance? If it's the former then they simply need to make the effort to read the abstracts - that's not NSF's fault. If the latter, then clearly some lawmakers need  a simple education on what drives long-term prosperity and security in a country - let's call it "Economic Development and National Security, 101".

Congress obviously should perform important work in deciding relative public priorities (e.g. cancer  versus energy research). However,  NSF, with its miserly funding level of $7bn, is a major driver of the US economy, both via direct research innovation and  in training the STEM researchers of the future. Putting politicians  on the review boards of individual NSF proposals would quickly put the brakes on that. 

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Sylvia McLain

Our former colleague and East Tennessean Sylvia McLain, who was a Shull fellow at SNS, now runs a scattering group in Oxford and moonlights as a hard-hitting, no-holds-barred  blogger with the Guardian newspaper.

Here's a recent entry on creationism.

She also has her own science blog here.

Good stuff, Sylvia. More of us could be communicating in the various media spheres.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Really just can't stand it....

I did turn on the telly with 5 minutes to go and, lo! and behold, they conceded the losing goal 3 minutes later to Aston Villa. To the team immediately fighting with us to avoid the chop. To the team to whom our coach absconded without permission 12 months ago........Next week I shan't watch at all.