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Energy Security and the Quiet Crisis

Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D.
President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

New Jersey Institute of Technology
Newark, New Jersey

Wednesday, February 8, 2006

Good afternoon. I am delighted to be here. I feel right at home. I have deep roots in New Jersey. This is where I began my professional research career. This is where I became involved with professional organizations and with public policy. This is where I began public service on state-level commissions, including the New Jersey Commission on Science and Technology, and where my interest in public science policy was nurtured. This is where I began to teach — where my husband and I built a home and raised our son.

And, how could I not feel a special kinship to a state represented in Congress by a physicist — Representative Rush Holt (D-NJ), who proposes that Congress re-establish an agency like the Office of Technology Assessment to improve its own knowledge and understanding of science?

We share other things. I understand that just last month, the New Jersey Institute of Technology and Rensselaer were named among America's 25 most technologically sophisticated institutions of higher education by The Princeton Review.

Indeed, there may even be friends in the audience from my tenure as a physics professor at Rutgers!

I have watched with great interest New Jersey's recent investment in high-tech recovery. Despite healthy economic reports, rebounds in state tax revenues, and reduced unemployment, state leaders understand that New Jersey's once preeminent technological position is not as strong as it was once.

To counteract the trend, last fall, the New Jersey Commission on Science and Technology (on which I served from 1985 to 1995), released a package of proposed policies and strategies for near-, mid-, and long-term investments in research and commercialization capacities, and to improve the entrepreneurial environment.

In this, New Jersey is positioning itself ahead of the game.

Last week, in his State of the Union address, the President laid out an "American Competitiveness Initiative" to sustain our national capacity for innovation. There is a compelling need for the United States to strengthen its capacity for innovation in order to retain leadership and pre-eminence in an increasingly global — and flat — world. Technology has leveled the field for all players, enabling nations and economies to vie intensely for leadership and for market share.

The President's call to action — along with recent bipartisan Congressional initiatives — is providing critical momentum for a new national emphasis on innovation.

There are few who disagree that this is a vital need. Every sector — corporate, academic, and government at all levels — has joined the growing chorus for a renewed national focus on America's capacity to innovate. New York State Governor George Pataki, in his State of the State address last month, called for more math and science teachers and offered scholarships to students who pursue careers in those fields.

Let us take a closer look at competitiveness. Two critical components drive the competitiveness agenda:

The first is human talent and creativity. The President called for investment in basic research, permanent research and development (R&D) tax credits, and steps to encourage children in mathematics and science. We, also, must directly support those who will do the science and engineering, as they pursue higher education and advanced graduate study.

The second — the compelling impetus — is energy security. The President called for research in zero emission coal-fired plants, solar and wind technologies, and nuclear energy.

National leadership is exactly what is needed at this point. We must do all that we can to help make these proposals become reality, and to encourage others across the full spectrum of innovation.

For some years, I have been urging a national dialogue to generate the will for national policy addressing threats to our intellectual security. I have called this threat the "Quiet Crisis" — the risk to our nation's capacity to innovate due to the looming shortage in the nation's science and technology workforce. The human dimension of the "Quiet Crisis" is embodied in:

  • Imminent retirements of today's scientists and engineers — the generation inspired by the "space race" and President John F. Kennedy's call to put a man on the moon.
  • Flagging mathematics and science tests scores of our students on international examinations, and the fact that fewer of our young people are pursuing science and engineering degrees than 15 or 20 years ago.
  • Changed demographics of today's student population creating a "new majority" of young women and ethnic and minority youths — a population which traditionally has been severely underrepresented in science, engineering, mathematics, and technology fields.
  • A decrease in the number of international scientists and students coming come to our shores to work and to study, or to remain if they do, as they seize new opportunities to study and work at home, or elsewhere.
  • The decreased Federal investment in basic research — which has declined by half, as a percentage of GDP, since 1970.

Now, with energy security central to our economy, progress, safety, and well-being, we are in urgent need of human talent. This is the 21st century's reprise of the "space race" — which was really a defense-based "science race."

With the world consuming two barrels of oil for every one discovered, we know that we can no longer just drill our way to energy security. We must innovate our way to energy security. New energy technologies demand our highest purpose and best innovative abilities.

The "Quiet Crisis" and Energy Security, of course, are intertwined. Energy security demands innovation and innovation requires consistent investment in our own intellectual security. Intellectual security is predicated on human talent — on people. Because it will be human talent, creativity, and intelligence that develops the viable energy alternatives we seek.

There will be no single "solution" to provide abundant, clean, and inexpensive, energy. There will be, rather, a "mix" of solutions, which will include innovative discovery, extractive and transportation technologies for fossil fuels; innovative conservation technologies; and innovative alternative fuel technologies.

What might they look like?

One example is methane hydrate. Methane, the chief constituent of natural gas, is locked in ice, and generally is found in hostile, remote settings, such as the Arctic permafrost or deep ocean. Once considered a nuisance, because it clogs natural gas pipelines, methane hydrate's reputation has improved as scientists have discovered that it could be an astonishingly abundant new energy source. Worldwide estimates of the natural gas potential of methane hydrate approach 400 million trillion cubic feet — a staggering figure when you consider the world's currently proven gas reserves at 5,500 trillion cubic feet. In fact, the worldwide amounts of hydrocarbons bound in gas hydrates are estimated conservatively to be twice the amount found in all known fossil fuels on Earth.

It is estimated that the methane trapped in known frozen reservoirs around the globe could power the world for centuries. But the technology to mine the deposits has proved elusive. Numerous studies are underway to characterize and describe the hydrates, and to determine how much is available at sites here and abroad. Yet, little is known about how gas hydrates can best be extracted and transported.

Gas hydrate drilling comes with its share of environmental concerns, including fears that drilling could release greenhouse gases, or trigger ocean landslides. Just last month, scientists reported discovering what they believe to be a substantial undersea deposit of frozen methane just off the Southern California coast. But marine geologists at the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park warned hydrate extraction could be difficult because of its proximity to shipping lanes and the twin ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

Traditional proposals for recovering gas from hydrates usually involve dissociating or "melting" the substances on site. Marathon Oil Corporation — and in the interest of disclosure, I am a Member of the Board of Directors of Marathon Oil — is exploring ways to produce and to ship stable slurries of natural gas hydrate crystals.

Proposed methods for gas hydrate production have not considered some recently developed advanced oil and gas production schemes such as in-situ combustion, electromagnetic heating, or downhole electrical heating. Also, advanced drilling techniques and complex downhole completions, including horizontal wells and multiple laterals, need to be considered.

If only 1 percent of the methane hydrate resource could be made technologically and economically recoverable, in an environmentally sound manner, the United States could more than double its domestic natural gas resource base. Congress has authorized funds for methane hydrate research and development, but has appropriated only limited amounts.

I would be remiss if I did not mention nuclear power in the category of energy alternatives. The President included incentives for nuclear power production in his State of the Union address. Nuclear power, which provides 20 percent of electricity generated in this country, and about 16 percent worldwide, is having a second look. Over the past several decades, nuclear power plants have achieved safer and more economical performance. Technological innovations in new designs are addressing safety and profitability concerns, some of which are targeted to deal with issues of nuclear waste. Much of the growth in nuclear power generation is in Asia, with 17 out of 25 reactors under construction being there.

Several new reactor designs are moving toward implementation.

South Korea is making progress with its System-integrated Modular Advanced ReacTor, or "SMART" pressurized water reactor. The Korean government plans to construct a one-fifth-scale (65 megawatt) demonstration plant by 2008, but has not announced a commercialization date for the full scale (330 megawatt) plant.

Among gas-cooled reactors, the South African Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR), which features billiard-ball-sized, self-contained fuel units, and uses liquid sodium to transfer heat, is well underway. Preparation of the reactor site at Koeberg has begun, and fuel loading is anticipated for mid-2010.

Innovative designs still in development employ modular cores which need refueling only every 30 years. New fuel configurations could reduce proliferation concerns, enhance control of sensitive nuclear material, and lessen infrastructure needs.

At Rensselaer, a considerable portion of research is devoted, as well, to hydrogen fuel cells, light emitting diodes (LEDs), photovoltaic architecture, modeling and simulation, visualization, and other energy-related technologies. Rensselaer is forming an Institute for Energy and Environmental Sciences, Innovation, and Policy, to be a platform for extended enterprise in this arena. This will build upon expertise we have developed over the last decade in each of the areas cited, and more.

I do not have the time, comprehensively, to review all of the research underway, but suffice it to say that innovators are working, as well, on conservation initiatives, sonofusion, solid state lighting, "smart highways," and wave power generation.

But, the question remains — who will create these innovations? Innovation demands excellent human talent, and a lot of it.

Now there is leadership at the highest levels. And, the growing chorus of sector voices has launched a national dialogue. We need, now, to ask, do we have the national will to do what is necessary to link policy proposals to budgets, ensuring real investment in the components of innovation?

The President proposed investing in basic research and steps to encourage children to study mathematics and science.

I have said that to be effective, we must also directly support those who pursue higher education and advanced graduate study in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

I see four additional policy opportunities to strengthen our innovation capacity:

  • The first is in making the corporate research and development (R&D) tax credits permanent, we must also strengthen their impact by including special internship opportunities in the R&D definition to encourage the next generation of scientists and engineers.
  • The second is that there are policy incentives we should employ to strengthen the "intangibles" of innovation. We need to think how intellectual property and research results can be given a value as a part of a corporate asset base.
  • A third opportunity is to create innovation fellowships for graduate students and innovation scholarships for undergraduates pursuing careers in science and engineering. This would make a strong statement about valuing the work of scientists and engineers. It would both encourage young people to commit to these critical disciplines and make them more accessible to a broader range of students.
  • A fourth is to create a cadre of National Teacher Scholars in mathematics and science. One program arm would accelerate certification for mathematics and science teachers who hold degrees in mathematics, science and engineering, not in education.

Another aspect of a National Teacher Scholar program would hire teachers on a twelve month basis through public/academic/business partnerships. During summer months, this cadre would assume positions in industry, government and other professional positions, or pursue graduate degrees. Both endeavors would improve their knowledge of science and mathematics content, and how it is utilized in real-world situations. In turn, such teachers would bring leading edge ideas and technology, and excitement back to the classroom. These teachers would be compensated better and have a professional status commensurate with their educational backgrounds (like their peers in industry), and commensurate with the importance of what they do.

As we do these things, pedagogy must change. First, it must change by reaching back to fundamentals to ensure a competency of every student in the language arts and mathematics. One cannot do calculus if one cannot do trigonometry, algebra and geometry. One cannot do these subjects if one cannot add, subtract, multiply and divide. One also must be able to read, understand and articulate.

Secondly, pedagogy must meet children where they are. It must adapt to the 24/7, fast-paced, technology- and media-rich world our children are growing up in. In other words, teaching must embrace technology to reinforce learning, and to help young people overcome learning difficulties. It must be infused with modern knowledge about cognition and learning. It must be interactive.

In the process, children should be taught and come to appreciate the importance of continual and life-long learning.

There is much more we could discuss, but these are a few ideas that have been on my mind for some time.


Innovation asks this question: Where — in the World — Will the Next Big Idea Come From?

Whoever answers will have world class research facilities and educational institutions graduating increasingly qualified science and engineering students. It will have invested in its human capital. It will have captured and fostered all of its human talent. It will have increased its support for mathematics and science education. It will have invested in basic scientific research across the broad spectrum of disciplinary fronts. It will have provided incentives for research and development.

This question: "Where — in the World — Will the Next Big Idea Come From?" reminds us that in order for us to answer this question "HERE" we must move from ideas to actualization, from intention to reality, we must have leadership, strategic policies, comprehensive programs, and long-term commitment.

The question reminds us that innovative energy technologies would bring our own nation energy security, would help to foster global stability, and would provide a focal point for creating the next generations of scientists and engineers.

Energy security and the Quiet Crisis are inextricably linked.

Thank you.

Source citations are available from the division of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Statistical data contained herein were factually accurate at the time it was delivered. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute assumes no duty to change it to reflect new developments.

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