President’s Research Budget Encouraging

We read about politicians wanting to drastically cut back the government’s role and government spending, including eliminating whole departments such as the DOE! Meanwhile, the Chinese government is spending many billions of yuans developing technology and supporting companies in the clean energy field. Solyndra became a victim of heavy Chinese government spending to mass produce solar cells at ever decreasing costs. The “Solyndra” effect is already being felt in the cutback of Federal grants in the clean energy field.

Fortunately, the 2013 budget President Obama submitted to Congress reflects the administration’s continued desire to stimulate and support R&D in a number of important fields by increasing the amounts proposed versus 2012. And, as we know, it is absolutely necessary for the government to take a lead in new research so that public-private partnerships can then take new developments to commercialization.

In a detailed analysis presented in the Februaruy 27th issue of Chemical & Engineering News, a lion’s share, 51% of the $ 141 billion Federal R&D budget goes to Defense, a 4.4% decrease.  However,  $ 11.9 billion is included for early stage science and technology programs and there is expanded support of advanced manufacturing R&D through new public-private partnerships. Energy R&D increses by 6.6% over 2012 to $ 10.3 billion , with a 28.6% increase in energy efficiency and renewable energy.  NSF R&D increases by 4.8% with $ 1.2 billion slated for Science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education.

For blog readers who are interested in digging deeper into how U.S. government research has created new industries I strongly recommend a book by Michael Belfiore entitled “The Department of Mad Scientists – How DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) is remaking our world from the Internet to Artificial Limbs”.(ISBN 978-0-06-157793-2) This secretive pentagon-led agency,  founded in response to Sputnik, seeks “paradigm-shifting ideas in varied fields – from energy, rockets and robotics to driverless cars and planes that can fly halfway around the world in just hours”.

Reverting to my theme, I continue to be amazed that so may people think that new industries can only be created by private companies when few of these firms spend any money on long range research. That has to be largely the role of government, funded by taxpayers who want the United States to remain in the forefront of technology development. While it is true that private firms, including small entrepreneurial companies, can develop and commercialize various technologies without government help, the more complex and costly new industry development efforts (e.g. in electronics, space, internet) could not have been achieved without large government spending at the front end.

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2 Responses to President’s Research Budget Encouraging

  1. Tom Blum says:

    “Solyndra became a victim of heavy Chinese government spending to mass produce solar cells at ever decreasing costs.” — Solyndra was also non-competitive with US made panels, and stood little chance of success even though it had a unique clever form, that had certain really nice features. Actually it was because of its unique form (cylinders) that it had too high cost (over $6.00 a watt) and didn’t have pathway to lowering costs due to a complex manufacturing process to deposit thin film PV on glass cylinders. They were the only company doing this, so couldn’t benefit from innovation in fabrication systems that helped lower the cost of making flat panels. Solyndra, like all the thin film, uses a lot less silicon, which for about one year really mattered during a temporary supply shortage which drove the spot price/kg of solar grade silicon to 5x-10x the cost of manufacturing. Once capacity expanded (it takes 18 – 48 months to build foundry for refining raw material into solar grade silicon) the prices returned to historic levels, and now is even lower.

  2. Peter Spitz says:

    Thanks Tom. You are very knowledgable in this area, which makes your comment valuable.

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