Clean Energy Technologies Dominate Obama's View of Innovation

A new report from the Obama Administration makes the case that last year’s $787 billion stimulus package is helping to transform the U.S. economy by fostering more innovation. But the 50-page report makes clear that not all research is equal. Renewable energy and genomics research appear to rule the roost at the White House, and the sexier the technology, the better. In contrast, basic science isn’t even on the radar screen.

The report is the first-ever analysis by this Administration of the $100 billion from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) directed at so-called “innovative and transformative” programs. That category includes more than $20 billion for basic research across several federal agencies and several billions for education and training. But of the four imminent “major innovation breakthroughs” touted in a press release accompanying the report, three fall into the narrow category of green energy technologies, specifically, efforts to lower the cost of solar panels, improve the storage capacity of batteries for electric vehicles, and increase U.S. manufacturing capacity to generate clean energy.

The presence of Energy Secretary Steven Chu, whose department is spending $30 billion in ARRA funds to promote clean energy through various grants and loans programs, emphasized that message. And Vice President Joe Biden drove home the point yesterday during a 45-minute talk before invited agency officials, outside scientists, and business leaders gathered at a government office building adjacent to the White House. “Secretary Chu is really the perfect person to talk about innovation. He should be talking to you instead of me,” confessed Biden, who nonetheless didn’t give Chu a chance to say a word after his fulsome introduction of the vice president.

The fourth so-called “breakthrough” on the horizon, according to the report, fits into the catch-all category of “groundbreaking medical research.” To be sure, Biden heaped praise on the National Institutes of Health, which received $10 billion in ARRA money, calling it “one of the greatest assemblages of doctors and scientists in the world.” Yet the report and the vice president concentrated on one tiny program within NIH’s National Human Genome Research Institute that hopes to make sequencing an entire human genome more affordable. The genome institute is spending about $20 million in ARRA money on grants to start-up companies and university teams working on various sequencing technologies aimed at speeding up the process and reducing the cost from the present $48,000 to the goal of $1000 or less for an individual. At that price, the report explains, “DNA information could become a routine part of medical care.”

Why does such a small program play such a big role in the Administration’s assessment of the fruits of the stimulus funding? The $1000 genome is the institute’s signature Recovery Act project, notes NHGRI’s Jeffery Schloss, who runs the $20-million a year program. “And when it succeeds, the rest of NIH can apply it to almost everything that they do,” he says. It doesn’t hurt, he adds, that Francis Collins had led NHGRI for 15 years before Obama appointed him as NIH director.

The program is also a poster child for the Administration’s claim that the stimulus package has created and preserved high-tech jobs. One $2.9 million grantee, Helicos BioSciences Corp. of Cambridge, Massachusetts, restructured this spring, shedding half of its workforce and shifting its focus to diagnostics. Patrice Milos, vice-president and chief scientific officer, says the ARRA funding has been “a pivotal grant that has enabled us to hire and retain key employees and to continue development work” on the 7-year-old company’s single molecule sequencing technology.

Biden acknowledged that innovation is more than jobs and market share. After criticizing the economic policies of congressional Republicans, Biden turned to Chu, a 1997 Nobel laureate in physics, and said, “From what I understand, you don’t win a Nobel prize for repeating the formulas of the past. You win a Nobel prize for doing something that’s never been done before. You win one for innovating.”

Yet the Administration’s analysis of the impact of the stimulus ignores the federal programs and agencies that have traditionally backed those Nobel laureates. There’s no mention, for example, of the $3 billion in ARRA money given to the National Science Foundation, which claims to have helped 187 scientists get to Stockholm. Nor does NASA, the agency most associated in the public’s eye with “doing something that’s never been done before,” appear in the report. The report is also silent on the Energy Department’s Office of Science, which received $1.6 billion in ARRA funding that flowed largely to its network of national laboratories.

Curiously, Biden’s description of the federal government’s role in fostering innovation was much broader than the projects the report cited. “The government’s job is to plant the seeds,” he explained. “The private sector nourishes them and makes them grow.”

Does innovation require new technology? We’d like to know what you think.