A interesting article in the Times this morning on the complex problem of reducing our use of fossil fuels got me to thinking about the nature of innovation in America. One of the biggest problems is that our current technologies waste so much energy (graphic above). The problem is posed starkly.
The economist Jeffrey D. Sachs, head of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, stated the case bluntly in a recent article in Scientific American: “Even with a cutback in wasteful energy spending, our current technologies cannot support both a decline in carbon dioxide emissions and an expanding global economy. If we try to restrain emissions without a fundamentally new set of technologies, we will end up stifling economic growth, including the development prospects for billions of people.”
So what would it take for us to create that new set of technologies? I found my answer in a book called The Dream Machine, Mitchell Waldrop’s epic tale of the creation of the computer revolution. In 1949, right after the Soviets had tested an atom bomb, the Pentagon decided it needed a comprehensive radar network that could detect Soviet bombers attacking the U.S. There was some elementary radar technology, no real time computers and no networks capable of moving digital data between radar stations. So the Pentagon sent General Albert Shiely to MIT and asked them to invent the system and within five years they had succeeded. How did this happen so fast?
For whatever reason–the perceived urgency of the task, perhaps, or the good sense of General Shiely and his oversight team–the researchers had remarkable freedom to make decisions without being second guessed from the top. They simply paid for (needed components) out of their “advanced research” budget, which they could dip into for whatever they considered needful–with no committee meetings, no studying the question to death and nobody’s pointing out a thousand ways they ought to do it differently.
We have discussed before on these pages some of the amazing new technologies that could take us away from our addiction to oil and coal. What is missing is the bottom up energy and freedom that the scientists at MIT had in their “Project Whirlwind”. But more importantly what is missing is the urgency on the part of the government to provide the needed research funding without strings or bureaucratic impediments. Why is it that we can only get these big projects done under the aegis of the military and with the threat of annihilation at our door?