Over the past few months Americans have been trying to grasp what each presidential nominee will bring to the table once inaugurated as our Commander-in-Chief this coming January.
With looming issues that include the economy, the war in Iraq, and gas prices, there has been little emphasis placed on how either John McCain or Barack Obama feel about the government’s role in science and technology despite a growing group of citizens who want the issue debated.. These individuals believe that the future of America’s science and technology sectors are crucial to the success of our economy, world image, and ultimately our well-being.
I found this table presented by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), useful but not definitive.
The table compares the decisions made by McCain and Obama regarding policies on science and technology spanning energy, health care and innovation.
It is clear through this table that Obama has given each issue some more thought: his calls for change include concrete numbers and percentages, while McCain’s do not.
With some more research, I found that much of the same was reflected in McCain and Obama’s campaign websites and other articles written about their stances.
Politics is always playing catch up to the future. While most energy issues revolve around changes to the status quo, other opportunities allow political leaders to fund basic research and help grow emerging industries.
But what about other pieces to the energy puzzle that are not central to today’s political campaigns? Or messages that seem to contradict today’s politic themes? What might be beyond the politics of oil trade and peak production? Or other cleantech ideas beyond solar and wind?
Many people believe that we are only at the beginning of an important age of energy politics. And we speculate that the hardest political conversations might be about changes in electricity grids and the control of energy flows, and the ethical issues of bio energy.
Here are two other issues that might shape the future of energy politics – global interdependence and synthetic biology.
Energy Independence vs Global Interdependence
Oil is on everyone’s radar. And common sense says rally behind the political message of the day energy independence especially with gasoline. But oil has been a globally integrated industry for decades, and undoing those relationships requires a very serious debate about what is good and bad about trade. What might complicate the future politics of energy independence is our ‘dependence’ on oil is the world’s other major resource: natural gas.
Last summer T Boone Pickens- launched a multi-million dollar television media campaign for America’s future. A central theme was energy independence via wind for power generation and shifting natural gas towards transportation fuel.
But what if the global natural gas market is only just starting to expand around liquefied natural gas? And if the US did shift to domestic natural gas for transportation fuel, wouldn’t this market be global in nature?
Or on the very positive side of renewable energy systems? What if the US or China’s clean tech industry dropped the cost of new energy systems? Would we want those products kept within a national border or delivered around the world?
Might the energy politics of the future be about thinking more globally and pushing towards further interdependence?
And if energy independence does remain a central theme, what about the politics of US and Chinese coal?
Enter energy politics of coal and synthetic biology
The Brookings Institute has released a report: "Energy Discovery-Innovation Institutes:
A Step Towards America's Energy Sustainability"[PDF] that proposes a new structure for innovation around a national network of regionally based energy Discovery-Innovation Institutes (e-DIIs) 'to serve as the hubs of a distributed research network linking the nation’s best scientists, engineers, and facilities.'
Committing Ourselves to Enabling Disruptive Science & Technologies
Given the dynamics of the global energy sector we can expect that nothing is going to change quickly, but when changes do happen - they could be potentially disruptive to how we produce, store and distributed energy.
Incremental solutions are not going to solve US or Global energy and environmental challenges. We must enable disruptive science and technologies that can 'do more with less' in fundamentally new ways. While we cannot pick winners, it is clear that the cross-disciplinary nature of science at the nanoscale will be paramount in all areas of energy from making hydrocarbons cleaner, lowering the costs of renewables, scaling up next generation bioenergy solutions, managing 'smarter grids', and creating storage solutions. Maybe a new framework for research collaboration is what we need to enable the 'new energy economy'!