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Photo of Arden Bement

Dr. Arden L. Bement, Jr.
National Science Foundation

"Energy, Environment and Economy: Can Science Help?"
University of Toledo

November 3, 2008

Greetings to everyone. I'm delighted to be here at the University of Toledo, and truly honored to have the opportunity to share some thoughts with you.

For the last couple of months, we have all been inundated with election information and misinformation, and material that is either pertinent or impertinent. In the midst of that barrage, I consulted my copy of The Devil's Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce. Some of you may know this slim little collection of witty and unorthodox definitions.

I found one apropos of election decisions. It said, "A Conservative is a statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others."

In a more serious vein, I am mindful that today is the eve of the Presidential election, one of the most important recurring events in America's life as a nation. Tomorrow we choose a leader who must confront -- and try to resolve -- some of the most difficult challenges our nation has faced in decades.

As citizens and members of the science and engineering community, we are compelled to consider our own responsibilities and duties, and ask what we can do to aid the nation. In particular, we must ask, "Can science help?"

Forty-five years ago, Vaneever Bush, the "father" of the National Science Foundation, gave this answer. "Science by itself," he observed, "provides no panacea for individual, social, and economic ills. It can be effective in the national welfare only as a member of a team, whether the conditions be peace or war. But without scientific progress no amount of achievement in other directions can insure our health, prosperity, and security as a nation in the modern world."1

His response still resonates today. During World War II, science and technological innovation had moved forward rapidly, stimulated by the need to win a brutal and costly war. By promoting public support for research, Vaneever Bush hoped to maintain the momentum of that progress, so vital in wartime, in order to improve the lives and prosperity of all Americans. That quest is still with us today.

We know that elections change styles of leadership. They alter policies. And they can move the nation in a different direction. But there are some societal forces that have a life of their own.

The increasing scientific and technological nature of civilization has been one of those forces, an undisputed pattern. It can be traced from early human history to a veritable frenzy in modern times. In the last twenty years, we have witnessed a tidal wave of fresh discoveries, and seen new technologies penetrate every aspect of our lives.

Today, science and technology are forces absolutely fundamental to our national well-being and, in fact, to our survival. Without a continual stream of fresh ideas that constantly redefine and disrupt the frontier and spur new innovation, we will be forced to compete with the ever-growing competency of nations with more scientists, more engineers and more tech-savvy students.

Today, the nation is feeling the whirlwind of communication, transportation, and economic integration we now call globalization. The financial turmoil in the past few weeks has made our economic position even more precarious.

As Director of the National Science Foundation, I'm often asked, "What keeps you awake at night?" My usual answer is, "America's continued ability to compete in world markets."

But continued economic prosperity is only one reason for sleepless nights.

Among the many competing research challenges of our times, some stand out because they are so vital for our well-being that we have an obligation to attack them head-on. Among these, three stand out as compelling, urgent, and ripe for progress. I'm referring to energy, environment and the economy. I've already mentioned the economy, so let me say a few words about the other two.

We are living in a time of rapid planetary change, caused in part by the resource demands of a single species, Homo sapiens. The Earth's climate and life support systems are changing today in ways, and at rates, that are troubling for our future.

The physics of climate change tells us that temperatures and sea level are likely to continue rising for decades to come, even under the most stringent mitigation regimes. We can certainly lessen future impacts on people and the environment, but we cannot entirely prevent them. Adapting to change will require new technologies and policies, informed by robust science.

Today's climate research relies on highly sophisticated computer models to explore the complexities and project the potential consequences of a changing environment. Without these models, it would be nearly impossible to anticipate the extent and severity of the changes that may lie ahead. Model forecasts give us a window on the future.

The window, however, is still clouded. Our current models cannot yet forecast the relatively rapid changes to which humans, ecosystems and economies are vulnerable on decadal and regional scales. And as we begin to unravel the effects that human activities have on ecosystems, these complex relationships must also be integrated into global models. Particularly relevant here is the use of land, biomass and water for fuel and energy production.

As we gain new understanding of the resiliency and the vulnerability of human and natural systems to disruptive change, we can begin to elucidate new pathways for healthy and sustainable adaptation to those changes.

Human dynamics are also key determinants in the selection and practical realization of new renewable energy technologies.

Nowhere is innovative thought and inspiration more urgently needed than in the search for sustainable energy. To a large extent, 21st-century civilization is still running on 19th-century energy technologies -- most notably, combustion of fossil fuels. And humanity is still practicing a social paradigm, unchanged in 100, 000 years, of burying or burning its copious wastes.

Energy has taken center stage on the national agenda for the first time in decades. The recent rise in the price of gasoline at the pump made the nation mindful of our dependence on foreign oil, and how acutely consumers and businesses, large and small, feel the economic consequences of rising oil prices. A growing awareness of the links between the use of fossil fuels and climate change means that energy and environment are inextricably linked as we work toward a sustainable future.

The development of renewable energy technologies to reduce dependence on the use of fossil fuels is still in its infancy. In addition to the development of non-fossil fuels, we need new energy conversion, storage and conservation strategies. There are many nascent concepts for each of these that have yet to be explored. In part, this is because there are fundamental scientific and engineering research problems yet to be resolved.

Human and social dynamics again play an important role. We do not yet understand fully the obstacles to the adoption of energy-saving behaviors by individuals, groups or organizations. The same holds true for acceptance of energy-efficiency standards and the establishment of markets for greenhouse gas emissions.

We need fundamental research to understand what drives the actions and decisions of present day "Homo economicus." Researchers in the economic, social and behavioral sciences, in collaboration with their colleagues from other disciplines, must address these and other broad social and policy-informing challenges.

That brings us full circle, back to the economy. Sustainability also means a sustainable economy. No one wants to return to the "hunter-gatherer" days of old. Nor do we want to condemn billions of the planet's inhabitants in developing countries to a future little better than existed in those times. Prosperity matters. A commitment to doing better, but doing it differently can help us chart this course.

The economy is on everybody's mind these days, so it is an auspicious time to emphasize the fundamentals. We must not forget the source of recent economic growth, rising productivity and new jobs. Science and engineering are the principal drivers of these forces through innovation and technological development.

It is abundantly clear that understanding the way in which energy, environmental and economic systems interact is essential if we want to live on a sustainable planet. These complex, dynamic systems are coupled. Surely, understanding the interrelationships among them is the Grand challenge, with a capital G, among grand challenges in science and engineering.

New concepts for generating, storing, and conserving energy from renewable sources can greatly improve energy sustainability, but only if they minimize environmental impacts and are economically attractive. Energy, environment and economy form a nexus, and knowing the details of their integrated dynamics gives us ways to measure and balance the costs and benefits of alternative policy choices.

This will help us chart future public investment strategies, and find optimal solutions for complex problems. And there is an additional bonus: the separate issues of energy independence and non-carbon energy sources become linked together in the broader goal of a sustainable future. That's two for the price of one!

In fact, the McKinsey Global Institute has published one study that projects the costs and benefits of adopting already existing energy efficiency technologies and practices. The study reaches this astonishing conclusion: "A [global] program that targets cost-effective opportunities in energy productivity could halve the growth in energy demand, cut emissions of greenhouse gases, and generate attractive [economic] returns."2 This from a premier business consultancy!

On a more practical level, the U.S. Conference of Mayors has just released a study that "calculates that the U.S. economy currently generates more than 750,000 green jobs -- a number that is projected to grow five-fold to more than 4.2 million jobs over the next three decades."3

Another recent study found that "California's energy-efficiency policies created nearly 1.5 million jobs from 1977 to 2007, while eliminating fewer than 25, 000. Although the state's policies lowered employee compensation in the electric power industry by an estimated $1.6 billion over that period, it improved compensation in the state over all by $44.6 billion."4 There are an every-increasing number of such studies that purport to show the benefits of a "green economy."

In one sense, our accumulated knowledge and technology is now so vast that we can, with some predictability, anticipate and design different futures. This is the nexus where science and policy intersect. Without a sound foundation in basic knowledge, we cannot forecast, and thus anticipate the future. Without prediction, we cannot identify and mitigate future risks, or prevent unacceptable consequences.

Science therefore also increases our options for the future. Policymakers and citizens alike can make better choices in designing a future course when these options are on the table.

In another sense, we are clever enough to identify the gaps in accumulated knowledge and technology that make our forecasts uncertain. Let me mention some of these gaps in the broadest terms.

We understand the genesis of the changes that have ushered in globalization, but little about the longer term consequences or intricacies of global interdependence. Once again, I'll point to the current global economic disarray to highlight this discontinuity.

We rely on innovation to spur economic growth and keep the U.S. at the forefront of high-tech enterprise, yet we have little beyond anecdote to describe how innovation actually occurs.

We have a refined picture of the causes of climate change, physical and human, but there are important gaps in our understanding of the complex dynamics of a living planet under increasing stress. Will earth systems reach thresholds that trigger abrupt, disruptive events? It's clearly vital to find an answer to this and many other questions about remaining uncertainties.

We know a good deal about how energy production and use affect both economic and climate stability, but we are struggling to solve fundamental scientific questions that could advance a number of promising technologies for sustainable energy.

We know that knowledge is now the most important form of capital, but we do not yet know how best to reshape our basic education systems and philosophies to realize the potential of every child to contribute to society.

Although I haven't spoken about education today, do not mistake this for a lack of interest or concern. The problems we face in charting a sustainable future will take a long time and many minds to resolve. A future without the first class scientists and engineers that we must educate today, would be bereft indeed.

Answering all of these questions is precisely how scientists and engineers can aid the nation. You are all aware of the profound research conundrums and technical details that underlie these quite simple sounding questions. That's why you are here at the University of Toledo, practicing first class research and education! I'd like to pause for a moment to thank you for doing this -- and ask you to do more. Let me explain.

There is a growing chasm between our new knowledge and technologies, on the one hand, and our deployment of that knowledge and technology in the service of society's most urgent needs in energy, environment and economy, on the other.

In the first place, a gap exists between our existing stock of frontier discoveries and its effective development and application to pressing problems. I would include in this category the old, but persistent problem of "tech transfer" -- of assuring that research results reach the private and government sectors engaged in delivering new products, processes and services.

Of course, the old, strictly linear model -- where "the academy proposes, and industry disposes" -- no longer suits the complexity of today's research or the rapid pace of technological innovation. The commerce between industry, academia and government calls for multiple feedback loops, and ongoing information exchange and problem solving. That's the native soil of partnerships, not pipelines.

In addition, scientific knowledge is often not marshaled in an effective and timely way to inform public policy. If news about available knowledge and technological innovations does not reach policymakers, we suffer a growing "decision deficit." Our stock of policy options for steering the future of the nation and the planet is diminished.

There are myriad examples of policies that do not take into account a full array of options based on existing knowledge. Policy governing the management of global fisheries, many of which are near collapse, is one example. The management of increasingly scarce water resources is another case, and one that is likely to loom large in our future.5 When we consider the need for policies to manage energy, environment and economy -- fisheries and water included -- the scale of the problem increases exponentially.

Breaking down barriers preventing us from moving forward with new technologies and policies is the most significant factor for our continued ability to cope with change.

In truth, confronting the colossal and complex challenge of energy, environment and economy requires new knowledge, new technologies, new financial investments, and new, forward-looking policies. We cannot do without any of these critical factors.

If Vaneever Bush was correct in thinking that science is most effective as a member of a team -- and I believe he was -- then we also need new connections across disciplines, cultures and borders. That also means strengthening partnerships among government, universities and industry.

Can the science and engineering community meet this challenge? My response is an emphatic "yes." In fact, we are ready, able and willing to do so.

As for being ready, just consider the powerful new research tools and methods that are available to advance our understanding of the way energy, environmental, and economic systems interact. I'm thinking in particular about our new computational, modeling and simulation capabilities, coupled with new ways of observing the world.

As for being able, the U.S. science and engineering community has always been--and continues to be a global leader in research and education.

As for being willing, I leave that for you to decide. My instinct tells me that if offered an opportunity to contribute in a meaningful way to such an important national -- indeed, global -- challenge, there would be standing room only in the arena.

There is an additional, significant bonus in taking on this Grand Challenge. It is not difficult to foresee that progress in understanding coupled energy, environment and economic systems is likely to "spillover" to a broad range of scientific and engineering challenges. Unraveling complex systems, linking phenomena across spatial and temporal scales, and improving the predictive power of models and simulations are challenges for every discipline of science and engineering today. There is plenty of playing space in which to exercise diverse and important research agendas.

It has been said that science and policy come together in two ways. There is "science for policy" and "policy for science." We think of "science for policy" when we engage in research that informs issues of national concern, like those we have been discussing. We think of "policy for science" chiefly when we ask for larger research budgets!

As a practical matter, the two are not as far apart as this clever dichotomy makes them appear. Nations are capable of making great commitments to meet great challenges, like energy, environmental and economic sustainability. But great commitments require all the requisite ingredients, including substantial investments.

These are tough times, with many competing demands. Despite stagnant research budgets, we can't afford to diminish one iota of our efforts as a nation to stay at the forefront of discovery and innovation.

I'll conclude with a reminder that America can't solve these problems single-handedly. What we can do, is provide leadership in exploring new concepts and models that will help everyone on the globe find solutions to common problems. That is how all of us -- researchers, students, policymakers, administrators -- from universities, business and government -- can help. That is how science can become a member of the team and contribute to the national welfare. You here at the University of Toledo are eminently ready to provide robust effort to that end.

Thank you.

  1. Vaneever Bush, 1945. Return to speech
  2. "How the world should invest in energy efficiency," McKinsey Global Institute, July 2008. Return to speech
  3. U.S. Metro Economies: Current and Potential Green Jobs in the U.S. Economy; U.S. Conference of Mayors, October 2008; accessed at: Return to speech
  4. Energy Efficiency, Innovation, and Job Creation in California, David Roland-Holst (an economist at the Center for Energy, Resources and Economic Sustainability at the University of California, Berkeley); October 2008. Accessed from: Return to speech
  5. "Protecting Individual Privacy in the Struggle Against Terrorists," National Research Council; October 2008. Accessed at: Return to speech