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Los Alamos vs. 100,000 garages October 9, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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Tom Brokaw

During this past Tuesday’s presidential debate , I was interested to hear moderator Tom Brokaw ask in a follow-up to John McCain whether America should adopt a “Manhattan-like project” to address the problem of developing alternative energies, “or should we fund 100,000 garages across America, the kind of industry and innovation that developed Silicon Valley?”  (“100,000” garages is apparently yet another Tom Friedman catchphrase; see here).

McCain replied with some boilerplate science policy: “I think pure research and development investment on the part of the United States government is certainly appropriate.  I think once it gets into productive stages, that we ought to, obviously, turn it over to the private sector.  By the way, my friends [here McCain began to ramble on about pork-barrel ‘goodies’ being attached to energy bills].”  Obama was not given a chance to reply.  (CNN has the debate transcript).

The historian’s instinct here might be to find the question, and certainly the response, unnuanced.  My response would be, yes, but, for a public discussion, I think it’s all right, and I would not expect anything more substantial, especially in a question demanding a 1-minute response.  It’s worth reflecting, though, on just what implied policy choices Brokaw packed into his question.

The two models at work here are these: the concentrated attack that includes the nation’s “best brains”, and a more dispersed entrepreneurial approach to technological innovation.

A carefully planned R&D project

Oak Ridge: A carefully planned R&D project

The Manhattan Project was a multi-pronged attack on the problem of creating a workable technology out of a novel physical phenomenon that merely suggested the feasibility of a massively powerful new explosive device.  There were only two possible species of bomb design: one that used enriched uranium and one that used plutonium produced in a nuclear reactor.  Enriching uranium was a huge technical problem, and several methods of doing so were experimented on at a plant in Oak Ridge, TN.  Once a basic reactor design was found at the University of Chicago, a reactor was built in Hanford, WA to produce plutonium.  The “best brains” were concentrated on a mesa near Los Alamos, New Mexico working out detailed theories of nuclear reactions and bomb designs, necessary to ensure successful construction.  I should also point out the involvement of companies like DuPont in developing production technologies.  A multifaceted effort, certainly, but still very concentrated around a two-pronged central problem where the efficiency of the final design was not an issue.

The "HP garage": icon of entrepreneurial technological development

The famous “start ups” of Silicon Valley involved the invention of a variety of component technologies (most famously, the transistor), their steady improvement in efficiency, and their combination with each other in many different useful and novel ways.  Behold the rise of Hewlett-Packard, Xerox, and others, along with many firms that stayed small and nimble.  However, the “100,000 garages” characterization is misleading, since large R&D facilities—such as those run by Bell Labs and IBM, not to mention the large defense contractors and universities—were also crucial to the building of the “Silicon Valley” R&D culture (including beyond the actual Silicon Valley area).

The alternative energies problem is also complex and also depends crucially on improving efficiency rather than being profoundly novel.  There can clearly not be an either/or policy approach.  Effectively, we already have all the major classes of technologies that we plan on using.  We have a major government laboratory, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, dedicated to R&D.  The “Manhattan” side of the question would thus be to what extent we want to expand this centralized effort.  The question of bringing in “best brains” is tricky, because the physical sciences population is so much larger and more diverse in its expertise than during World War II, and the problems are not as unexplored as the problem of nuclear fission and explosion physics were then.  We already have all kinds of summer projects where the brightest scientists can dangle their toes in the specialists’ stream—would it really be worthwhile to have them dive in head first?

On the nature of alternative energy technologies, improvements can be expected in design of power plants (whether windmills or nuclear reactors), in components of power plants (which might be able to be done at the “garage” level), and, crucially, in the infrastructure with which energy is distributed to consumers (which is absolutely not a “garage”-type issue).  We have lots of solar energy and wind turbine startups.  We have lots of big R&D laboratories working on the bigger problems.  We have government laboratories.  We have journals and conferences by the boatload dedicated to the problem.  We don’t seem to have anything blatantly missing that we will need to address this problem.

Except “more”.

More of what?  Subsidies and tax incentives for alternative energy R&D at large companies?  Tax incentives to import more efficient foreign technologies?  Grants to fund “basic” research on materials, and nuclear reactions, and God knows what else?  Grants to supplement venture capital?  More efficient communication and coordination between different specialties?  More applied research being published in the open literature by government laboratories rather than being kept under patent protection?  Probably all of it—but which proposals should be answered, to what degree, and in what proportion?

I certainly don’t pretend to have any answers here; and there are legions of science policy experts dedicated to just these sorts of issues who didn’t exist in World War II and were only beginning to develop back in the 1960s.  What I can say is that I think it’s nice that we can at least hint at the existence of so much of this world through a couple of historical reference points.  These reference points will not and almost certainly will never be adequate for holding a nuanced public conversation let alone a policy (or historical) conversation.  Part of me thinks Brokaw was being silly even to think the question he posed might be answered.

But at the same time, the development and deployment of icons helps us communicate what the experts are doing and builds some means of understanding why policies might be legitimate—for instance, the suddenly cliché connection between “Wall Street” and “Main Street” at least communicates that finance actually does relate to the workings of the so-called “real” economy.  The Manhattan Project and 100,000 Garages will never be at such a ubiquitously public level of discussion, but when the time comes to explain alternative energy funding to the people who need or want to be told about it, describing our policy using these icons (or ones like them) as a lexicon might not be such a bad idea.

Update: On the lexicon of public policy rhetoric in the context of the current financial crisis, also see History of Economics Playground on the creation of “toxic assets”.

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Comments»

1. Philip Mirowski - October 10, 2008

The contrast between the Manhattan Project and ‘10,000 garages’ does replay the outmoded dichotomy between Cold War science and the new era of global privatized science. The problem is that the terms of the debate have largely been dictated by neoliberal economists, and therefore no appreciable headway is made in diagnosing the real problems besetting contemporary science and the universities. Americans have a weakness for seeing science as prosecuted by geniuses and entrepreneurs; but the real issue is how to deal with a fatally flawed system of the funding and organization of science in the US, which includes phenomena like: outrageously stengthened IP, the junk science movement undermining academic science, the failure of the biotech model of research, the offshoring of all manner of corporate R&D to low-cost platforms like China, the spreading practice of ghost authorship in scientific journals, badly biased results in journals due to hidden funding effects, and the falling number of American scientific publications in fixed journal sets. The ridiculous dichotomy posed by Brokaw simply reveals the result of the degradation of current understandings of how science works (or not). Historians have not helped with their penchant for retrospective praise of newly uncovered instances of ‘commercial science’ in the longer perspective.
I discuss these issues in detail in my forthcoming book from Harvard University Press, ScienceMart.


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