Energy Scientists Want to Be Institutionalized

Advocates for increased energy research are dreaming big these days. The latest proposal, unveiled this week by the Brookings Institution and a gaggle of large universities, calls for a 10-fold increase in federal funding for energy R&D to an annual level of $20 billion to $30 billion a year.  

Their plan includes starring roles for universities; two dozen or more academic institutions would host new so-called Discovery-Innovation Institutes, each one with an annual research budget of $200 million to $500 million. The institutes would focus on pressing problems in their regions and work closely with local officials and private companies. A center in Ohio, for example, might spend much of its effort on ways to update or replace coal-fired power plants. James Duderstadt, a former president of the University of Michigan who is the report's primary author, says such centers would be similar in spirit to the agricultural experiment stations that federal and state governments established at "land-grant" universities a century ago. 

The proposed research centers would be bigger and more concerned with near-term problems than those in a competing proposal by the Department of Energy for its planned Energy Frontier Research Centers. EFRCs, which may be funded with money in the stimulus package now working its way through the U.S. Congress, are supposed to be virtual research institutes, lasting only for the lifetime of a particular research project. DOE has described them as "dream teams" of top-notch scientists working mostly at universities.

Duderstadt says he delivered his new report several weeks ago to Steven Chu, the newly confirmed secretary of energy, and to John Holdren, who is awaiting Senate confirmation as White House Science Adviser.