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On the Nature of Science and Technology Power

Its Attributes, Role, and Importance


Science and technology – the pursuit of new knowledge and the development of new systems, hardware, and methods of operation – are essential to the growth, security, and prosperity of a nation. As Vannevar Bush, while outlining the necessity for a robust science and technology system in the United States, observed in his seminal “Science: The Endless Frontier,”

“[S]cientific progress is, and must be, of vital interest to government. Without scientific progress the national health would deteriorate; without scientific progress, we could not hope for improvement in our standard of living or for an increased number of jobs for our citizens; and without scientific progress we could not have maintained our liberties against tyranny.”[i]

Indeed, the United States’ leadership in science and technology has been a historical cornerstone of its capacity for “hard power” force application and projection and economic and societal “soft power.” It buttresses the country’s economic might, enables the modern standards of living of our citizenry, and expands our global cultural and normative reach.[ii] Equally so, the power of science and technology has been decisive in the context of national security. As President Truman noted in 1945, while urging Congress to create a Department of National Defense, “no aspect of military preparedness is more important than scientific research.”[iii] Through discoveries, technological innovation, and the capacity to develop ideas into deployable weapons, systems, and concepts, the United States has arrived at its modern-day military advantage and superiority.[iv]

To that end, science and technology may be considered key elements of the United States’ comprehensive national power – fundamentals of the country’s strength vis-à-vis competitors. Yet science and technology alone cannot ensure any country’s continued security, prosperity, or hegemony; far from operating in a vacuum, science and technology are constantly evolving to address changing domestic and international circumstances and threats. To reap advantage from science and technology, especially in their national security application, a country must continually innovate to tackle contemporary developments and anticipate future ones. This poses a considerable challenge, the solution to which extends beyond advanced engineering and research.

To explore these notions, this essay, particularly interested in the application of science and technology toward national security ends, examines the United States’ recent employment of security-related technologies. From this, it explores the attributes of science and technology power and the similarities and differences between science and technology power and other forms of national power such as the economic and diplomatic. Looking at the relative importance of science and technology in the United States today and likely significance in the coming future, it lays out a series of policy recommendations that may guide policymakers as they make decisions that impact the direction of the country’s scientific and technological course.

Employment of – and Challenges Facing – National Security-Related Technology

Recognizing the vital role that technology played in winning World War Two, along with the emerging threat of Soviet technological competitiveness, the United States established in the war’s wake an extensive infrastructure to support national security science and technology efforts. This provided foundation and catalyst for the development of military capabilities and tools needed to meet the challenges of the Cold War and the modern day: the nuclear triad, intelligence-gathering and cyber infrastructure, space-based radar and communications systems, advanced precision-guided munitions, and integrated command and control, along with myriad other assets.[v]

These technologies have seen extensive use in contemporary military conflicts. The wars in the Balkans and the Gulf saw the ever-increasing use of position, navigation, and timing assets such as GPS to provide precise and reliable information to the warfighter and direct precision-guided weaponry.[vi] Targeted airstrikes and weapons such as the long-range cruise missile have allowed for far more rapid, responsive, and accurate strikes than those of the past while substantially reducing collateral damage. Combat drones and unmanned aerial vehicles, innovations emblematic of the “War on Terror,” enable the warfighter to engage adversaries and conduct reconnaissance while safely remaining away from the front lines of the battlefield. Stealth aircraft, using a range of advanced technologies that reduce reflections and emissions, have helped pilots conduct sorties while evading detection.[vii]

Technology abets the United States’ security beyond warfighting. Advanced cyber capabilities – encryption, for example – seek to defend the networks which control the country’s power, transit, and water infrastructure from malicious hacks and crippling denial of service.[viii] Technologies capable of detecting harmful biological and chemical agents guard the country against potentially devastating attack by non-state actors.[ix] Increasingly sophisticated monitoring and surveillance technology enables the government to globally track and work to counter criminal activity, terrorist organizations, and other developments which threaten the country’s safety.[x]

Crucially, though, the United States’ contemporary application of national security systems has also demonstrated the inherent challenges of innovation and the limitations of technology. Despite advanced military hardware, principally designed to fight large-scale conventional wars against Cold War-era foes, the United States military had to “catch up” and react to unconventional tactics, such as roadside bombs and sniper attacks, employed against it in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Though decidedly outnumbered and outgunned, enemy combatants effectively countered the United States’ asymmetric technological advantage through guerilla warfare, propaganda, and exploiting collateral damage that advanced weapons systems created – doctrines which the United States’ technology did not anticipate and was unprepared or unsuited to counter.[xi] Likewise, despite the sophistication of the United States’ homeland security technologies, the government has struggled to prevent incidents of domestic terrorism such as mass shootings, often characterized by the use of simple, off-the-shelf equipment.[xii]

Meanwhile, in reaction to the United States’ present-day technological superiority, competitive foreign powers such as Russia and China are heavily investing in hardware and capabilities in the cyber and military realms specifically designed to counter the United States’ technological strengths and exploit its demonstrated vulnerabilities. The technological capabilities underlying the United States’ comparative military advantage are now proliferating to an increasing number of state and non-state actors, including potential adversaries, leveling the military “playing field.”[xiii]

The Attributes of National Security Science and Technology Power

From this, several key attributes and characteristics of science and technology as a form of national power can be identified. Foremost is the capacity for technology and science to be a significant, occasionally decisive, enhancer of a country’s military strength against enemies. Countries which develop innovative military technologies which effectively counter an adversary’s offenses or defensives, or against which an adversary has no means to protect itself, find themselves disproportionately advantaged on the battlefield. Indeed, technologies which upend dominant “status quo” warfighting paradigms – such as, historically, the introduction of the chariot, the tank, or nuclear weapons – are poised to significantly disrupt and reorder the geopolitical and military balance of power.[xiv]

To that end, science and technology power, particularly in the national security sphere, is developed and sustained through the adaption to, and more so through the anticipation of, revolutionary changes in military affairs, doctrine, and hardware. As Lieutenant Colonel Scott Stephenson noted in the influential “The Revolution in Military Affairs,” “those slow to adapt to military revolutions… are likely to suffer painful results. When the pace of change accelerates, the militaries that anticipate and adapt are likely to gain a massive advantage over potential enemies who are less agile.”[xv] That agility is, in large part, borne from innovations in science and the development of new technologies which lead to unanticipated, and therefore difficult to counter, doctrines.

A defining characteristic of science and technology power, then, is the continual quest for states to match, counter, and out-compete the technology of their adversaries. This continuing interplay between technology and national power, characterized by the sustained technological evolution and described often as an “offset,” has been a key focus for national security-related research and development throughout the Cold War and into the present. The United States’ deployment of nuclear weapons, for example, offset the numerical advantage held by the Soviet Union’s land forces in the early Cold War. Soviet parity in nuclear weapons catalyzed the development of guided weapon and integrated command and control as a counter, focusing on accuracy of targeted weapons systems independent of range.[xvi] The United States’ capacity to offset Soviet technology through innovative developments – and the Soviet bankruptcy borne from military expenditure that came as a corollary – was an important factor in maintaining a generally peaceful stable of power along with the country’s ultimate triumph in the Cold War. In the present-day, China and Russia’s focus on countering the systems and technologies which currently provide the United States’ military asymmetry is emblematic of this “offset” approach to science and technology power.

Paradoxically, however, national security-related technology in the present day has become as great an equalizer as it has historically been a separator of actors’ strengths. Technological superiority in the present may provide the United States’ unrivaled military strength, especially against foes (historically, state actors with large conventional forces) for which its national security technologies anticipated countering. Yet as the example of the Iraq and Afghani insurgencies amply demonstrated, technological superiority coupled with innovation focused on addressing hypothetical future battlefields may not be adequate to oppose or defeat all actors or all forms of warfare, regardless of the level of their sophistication.

Indeed, advanced technologies may be entirely vulnerable to actors utilizing doctrines with simple technologies that nonetheless exploit their weaknesses, as was the case with sophisticated – and expensive – American vehicles being destroyed by crude, homemade IEDs. Technology itself also creates weaknesses; the United States’ progressing economic and social reliance upon interconnected networks, for example, makes the country more vulnerable to potentially crippling attack. Despite advanced American cybersecurity technologies and techniques, non-state actors have still proven themselves capable of infiltrating, attacking, and even denying use of American cyber capabilities; considering recent trends, this vulnerable seems likely to continue, if not worsen.[xvii]

It may be that an attribute of science and technology power, borne more from the focus and perceptions of the technologists, theorists, and military leadership that employ it than from science and technology itself, is that it obscures other factors which equally dictate important developments in military, international, and geopolitical affairs. Political upheaval, social change, and economic development can change warfare dramatically, for example – and have nothing to do with “offset” strategies or war-room predictions of possible enemies’ future high-tech military hardware. As a product of the military-industrial complex that emerged in the Cold War United States to sustain continued technological development, Americans tend to be acutely – perhaps overly – sensitive to technological innovation among competitors and potential rivals. Fears during the Cold War and contemporary discussions of the “Third Offset” paint pictures of emerging, potential, and fanciful enemy weapon systems – which military planning and technology development was and is oriented toward countering.[xviii] This fixation on solutions entailing engineering and technological complexity blinds the national security technology apparatus to external trends that could definitively impact the future course of war – such as the collapse of the Soviet Union leaving the United States with a high-tech military and warfighting doctrine unsuited for the military pressures and asymmetric nature of counterinsurgency; the rise of radical terrorism with ideological underpinnings that condone unconventional guerilla tactics such as suicide bombings, which had great effect against high-tech targets; or the continuing crisis where lone-wolf gunmen using off-the-shelf rifles can commit massacres despite the government’s highly complex and pervasive surveillance and monitoring technology.

Similarities and Differences to Other Forms of National Power

With these attributes in mind, a comparison can be drawn between science and technology power and other forms of power which constitute a country’s comprehensive strength, such as the economic and diplomatic. Regarding the economic, science and technology power is similar in that the development of science and technology is driven by the same forces as economic growth. Like new economic products, services, and methods of operation, science and technology power relies upon the ingenuity of human actors predicting and anticipating future trends, possibilities, and human behavior. Innovation, iteration, and competitiveness are fundamental catalysts for the continued evolution and growth of both. The rapid proliferation and subsequent use of innovative technologies across the world quickly equalizes both the national security advantage and the economic advantage they provided their inventor.

Economic power, like national security technology, is a key element of a country’s warfighting capability – industrial might, strength in quality production, and capable infrastructure are crucial facets of a country’s ability to mobilize and project force. A fundamental difference between economic power and science and technology power, however, is competition. While economies naturally compete, there is incentive for states to specialize in the economic product or service most suited for it – their comparative advantage. Competing economies are not actively incentivized to counter the economic specialization of their rivals. With science and technology power for national security use, however, states decidedly hope to actively and explicitly counter the relative advantage of their adversaries.

Like diplomatic power, science and technology has a “soft power” element; other states and their societies may be influenced or compelled to action by the might, prestige, or cultural and technological hegemony of a country in possession of highly advanced and capable technologies.[xix] Diplomatic power occasionally experiences the same issue of science and technology policy in being blinded to unpredicted or external trends in the social, cultural, and economic spheres. The power of diplomacy, for example, did not anticipate and struggled to deal with the cultural, social, and political circumstances that led to a breakdown of order in post-invasion Iraq; just as national security technology was unprepared for the guerilla warfare of the Iraqi insurgency. Diplomatic power and science and technology power differ, though, in the fields of innovation and evolution. Whereas the military regime is constantly evolving and occasionally being upended by revolutions in security technology and associated doctrine, the Westphalian diplomatic order has remained largely similar through centuries – even as it has grown gradually more complex and interconnected. States do not tend seek to outcompete each other in the diplomatic sphere through revolutionary new approaches to diplomacy; negotiations, sanctions, deals, bi- and multilateral agreements, and the like have remained consistent “doctrines” employed by states in their dealings with international friends and foes.

Science and Technology Power’s Present and Future Importance


To return to Vannevar Bush’s assertion over half a century ago, science and technology is crucially important for a states’ economic growth and prosperity, the wellbeing of its citizens, and national security. This remains absolutely the case today. Despite the challenges facing innovation in the face of unanticipated adversaries and the proliferation of advanced, equalizing technologies among adversarial states and non-state actors, science and technology provides the United States’ unrivaled levels of security and military hegemony.

With the appearance of significant global challenges – refugee crises, environmental degradation, the possible emergence of a bi- or multi-polar world characterized by states with rough or equal technological parity, to name a few – the future importance of science and technology power cutting across all aspects of national security will undoubtedly redouble. Science and technology and its application as an element of the United States’ national power will need to be directed to address these challenges. While the exact characteristics that will define domestic and foreign national security technologies of the future – not to mention the economic and social – remain uncertain, the United States cannot afford to permit its current technological advantage to slip. Indeed, as revision states such as China continue to develop their technologies to directly counter the United States’ capabilities, it will likely become an imperative for the country to more actively engage in and support the development of innovative new security technologies and doctrines – lest, as history would suggest, the international order again be upended.

Suggestions for Policymakers

To that end, taking into consideration the historical and contemporary application of science and technology policy and acknowledging its various attributes, policymakers may be guided by a number policy suggestions. Among them:

  • To preserve its national security, the United States must continue to – and indeed should more proactively and resolutely – develop technologies that seek to “offset” the growing technological parity at which advanced state adversaries such as China are arriving.
  • Effective innovation in military technology is difficult to achieve without a distinct adversary or system to counter;[xx] the United States should focus its technological developments less on hypothetical possibilities and more on realistic, short- to mid-term technological challenges it faces.
  • To achieve that, policymakers should consider methods to speed up acquisition processes and systems delivery; technologies with years to decades-long development times are generally antiquated or, in the case of the U.S. military in post-invasion Iraq, unsuited for the threats and challenges of the time they are deployed.
  • Despite the importance of science and technology power for the United States’ military strength and national security, it alone does not dictate the nature of warfare. The development and application of security technology should be coupled with a more nuanced understanding of the external forces – social, cultural, political – that may shape the character of the war in which technology power is employed.

Works Cited

[i] Vannevar Bush. “Science: The Endless Frontier”. National Science Foundation. July 1945. Retrieved from: https://www.nsf.gov/od/lpa/nsf50/vbush1945.htm

[ii] Gerald Epstein. “Science and Technology: Making Smart Power Smarter”. CSIS Commission on Smart Power. July 12, 2007. Retrieved from: https://csis-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/legacy_files/files/media/csis/pubs/071207_smart_power_epstein_science_technology.pdf

[iii] President Harry S. Truman. “Special Message to the Congress Recommending the Establishment of a Department of National Defense”. December 19, 1945. Retrieved   from: http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=12259

[iv] National Science and Technology Council. “A 21st Century Science, Technology, and   Innovation Strategy for America’s National Security”. May 2016. Retrieved from: http://www.defenseinnovationmarketplace.mil/resources/National_Security_ST_Strategy_2016_FINAL.PDF

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Joint Staff. “Joint Publication 3-14: Space Operations”. May 29, 2013. PP. 35.

[vii] Eric Beidel, Sandra Erwin, & Stew Magnuson. “10 Technologies the U.S. Military Will Need For the Next War”. November 2011. Retrieved from:             http://www.nationaldefensemagazine.org/archive/2011/november/pages/10technologiestheusmilitarywillneedforthenextwar.aspx

[viii] David Meadows. “Blog: Cybersecurity Is Crucial to National Security”. February 11, 2016. Retrieved from: http://www.afcea.org/content/?q=Blog-cybersecurity-crucial-national-security

[ix] National Academies. “Core Science and Technology Capabilities for the Chemical and Biological Defense Program”. 2012. Retrieved from:       https://www.nap.edu/read/13516/chapter/5#40

[x] David Gallington. “The Case for Internet Surveillance”. September 18, 2013. Retrieved from: https://www.usnews.com/opinion/blogs/world-report/2013/09/18/internet-surveillance-is-  a-necessary-part-of-national-security

[xi] Anthony Cordesman. “The Real Revolution in Military Affairs”. CSIS. August 4, 2014. Retrieved from: https://www.csis.org/analysis/real-revolution-military-affairs

[xii] William Brennan. “Bulletproofing America”. February 2017. Retrieved from: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/01/bulletproofing/508754/

[xiii] Michele Flournoy & Robert Lyons III. “Sustaining and Enhancing the US Military’s Technological Edge”. Strategic Studies Quarterly. Summer 2016.

[xiv] Shawn Brimley. “Offset Strategies & Warfighting Regimes”. October 15, 2014. Retrieved from: https://warontherocks.com/2014/10/offset-strategies-warfighting-regimes/

[xv] Scott Stephenson. “The Revolution in Military Affairs: 12 Observations on an Out-of-Fashion Idea.” Military Review. May 2010. Retrieved from:             http://usacac.army.mil/CAC2/MilitaryReview/Archives/English/MilitaryReview_20100630_art007.pdf

[xvi] Shawn Brimley. “Offset Strategies & Warfighting Regimes”. October 15, 2014. Retrieved from: https://warontherocks.com/2014/10/offset-strategies-warfighting-regimes/

[xvii] Max Boot. “The Paradox of Military Technology”. The New Atlantis. October 2006.   Retrieved from: http://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/the-paradox-of-military-technology

[xviii] Scott Stephenson. “The Revolution in Military Affairs: 12 Observations on an Out-of-Fashion Idea.” Military Review. May 2010. Retrieved from:             http://usacac.army.mil/CAC2/MilitaryReview/Archives/English/MilitaryReview_20100630_art007.pdf

[xix] Gerald Epstein. “Science and Technology: Making Smart Power Smarter”. CSIS Commission on Smart Power. July 12, 2007. Retrieved from: https://csis-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/legacy_files/files/media/csis/pubs/071207_smart_power_epstein_science_technology.pdf

[xx] Scott Stephenson. “The Revolution in Military Affairs: 12 Observations on an Out-of-Fashion Idea.” Military Review. May 2010. Retrieved from:             http://usacac.army.mil/CAC2/MilitaryReview/Archives/English/MilitaryReview_20100630_art007.pdf

Exploring the Divide Between Science and Security

A considerable divide, often seen manifest through science and technology policies and regulations, exists between the scientific community and the national security community. As an inherently forward-thinking group, the scientific community favors change, progress, and innovation; conversely, the national security community, concerned about matters of defense and its capacity to counter foreseen threats and challenges, favors the preservation and protection of a status quo for which it is accustomed and prepared. Change, especially unexpected change, is therefore considered threatening. The scientific community values, and indeed strives upon, collaboration, the open exchange of ideas, and the flow of knowledge. The national security community, on the other hand, values secrecy and control of information, lest it fall into the “wrong hands.” In this context, the dual-use nature of technology and knowledge puts pressure on the government to strike a balance between supporting its scientific constituents in their research and enabling the national security community to protect the nation by limiting and regulating the technologies and knowledge that research produces. For – as is decidedly the case with our control of the atom, knowledge of the cell, and power of the internet – the products of science have as much capacity to be used for evil, to harm our community, as they can be used for good to enhance our lives. Through a look at the issues of that balance, drawing from examples in the space field as a case-study, this essay examines this divide in the context of science and technology policy.

In the wake of the September 11th attacks, a renewed focus has been placed on protecting the American homeland and guaranteeing the safety of American citizens. Concerns that terrorist groups will utilize products of technological advancement – miniaturized nuclear weapons, biological and chemical agents, and cyberwarfare, to name a few – for harm have manifested themselves in policies and regulations restricting the scope and nature of what the scientific community can study and produce. For example, scientists studying biological agents have found that certain vectors and agents, deemed dangerous and weaponizable by the government despite their research value, have come under tight control and limitation. Meanwhile, continuing anxieties about the capabilities of conventional adversaries such as China, Russia, and Iran have been cause for government-issued controls on the export of particular technologies, limits on the communication and transfer of certain information and knowledge, and restrictions on who can participate in American scientific research and technological development.

Fears about the application of science and technology for malicious purposes are hardly new, however. Since the dawn of the atomic age and the Cold War, which was defined in large part by technological competition between the Soviet Union and the United States, scientists have found themselves under considerable scrutiny by the government and national security sector. Because of its potential application for dangerous purposes, scientific knowledge and know-how can be considered a security risk; this was particularly the case at the height of the ‘McCarthy era’ in the United States. A high-profile example of this, relevant to the space and rocketry field, is that of Tsien Hsue-Shen. A Chinese-born scientist, Tsien was instrumental in laying the foundation of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory; his research in fluid dynamics, structures, and engineering is regarded as making possible the United States’ entry into space. Amidst McCarthy-era fears and paranoia, however, he was accused of being a Communist sympathizer and deported to China. In the context of the Cold War security environment, the perceived threat he and his knowledge posed trounced his contributions to American science; ironically, upon his return to China, the Communist Party made full use of his skills – placing him in charge of the Chinese missile program. Tsein’s case is not unique; several scientists living and working in the United States have found themselves come under suspicion because of their work and suspicions of their loyalty. That some have been arrested and deported – both rightly and wrongly – reflects the delicate, occasionally damaging, balance that is struck between security concerns regarding scientists and their pursuit of knowledge.

Related to the concerns levied upon American scientists, the United States government places considerable restrictions upon foreigners who wish to pursue scientific and technological work in the United States. Borne from fears that these individuals may be agents working for other governments and/or that they will take their knowledge and skills back to their home nation upon their works completion, the government frequently prohibits foreigners from engaging in work that has dual-use risk or national security application. In the space field, for example, foreigners are often prohibited from working on technologies related to rockets, as that technology can equally be applied to the production of ballistic missiles. Accordingly, commercial rocket companies operating in the United States require that their engineers and technologists be United States citizens. Foreigners working for NASA or for commercial space companies often find themselves prohibited from entering restricted areas or accessing sensitive information and technology, despite its importance and relevance to their work. Again, this is reflective of the divide between the scientific and security communities; there are understandable security concerns regarding foreigners, especially those with places of origin that may be adversarial to the United States. However, it is equally understandable – and indeed beneficial – that foreigners would wish to pursue scientific and technological work in the United States. Attracting foreign talent and knowledge has historically been a major driver behind the United States’ scientific leadership and resulting technological and economic dominance. This form of open cooperation is native to the scientific mindset. Too restrictive of limitations and regulations on foreign scientists could therefore come at a detriment to scientific progress and economic growth, which may be equally challenging to the country as the possible security risks these scientists represent. Finding how, and where, to strike an appropriate balance for this issue is a continuing debate.

Associated with security concerns about foreign scientists making nefarious use of American scientific work and technology is the field of export control policies. These regulations require that certain items with defense-related uses, or commercial items which could have military applicability, be licensed before they’re exported to certain foreign countries. The security rationale, of course, is to prevent foreign countries or actors from acquiring advanced American-made technology which could then be used for harm; likewise, it is to prevent the reverse-engineering of that technology which would bring possible adversaries to a “level playing-field” with the United States. However, beyond covering simply tangible items and products, export controls also control the information and knowledge related to the export-controlled good. As such, transmitting that information or knowledge to a foreign national is considered an export and must therefore be licensed as well.  Because of this, American scientists often face difficulties in collaborating with scientists in foreign countries on topics that are covered by the United States’ export control list. This, of course, reflects the difference in perceptions between the security and scientific communities on the value of information – scientists seek the open flow of information, regardless of with whom, to collaborate and further advance the pursuit of their research; the government sees the open flow of information as a possible source of harm undermining the United States’ technological advantage against enemies.

The issue of export controls is particularly significant and pronounced in the space field. Satellite technology, which obviously has the capability to be used for military purposes, has for decades been under tight control by stringent export regulations. As such, space-related research involving satellites requires scientists to go through the lengthy and difficult licensing process to pursue their research – just to find, as is frequently the case, that they are denied. The effect this has on space science and collaboration has been considerably detrimental. Without the capacity to collaborate with foreigners abroad, American scientists find themselves disadvantaged through limited data sets; this is especially true for space, where foreign satellite capabilities may augment or supplement those of the United States or where the United States is simply lacking in capability. Beyond export controls impacting collaboration between non-government scientists studying space, government regulations have also had serious impact on the capacity for NASA to interact and partner with certain countries in pursuit of space science goals.

Since 2004, when it was mandated in law, NASA has been totally prohibited from partnering, collaborating, or even interacting with the Chinese space program. The rationale behind this prohibition was the same behind export controls in general – a fear that China, as a growing geopolitical competitor and adversary, will take the scientific and technological knowledge gained through partnership and apply it in ways that could disadvantage the United States. This is, seen through a security perspective, an entirely reasonable concern; the Chinese are known for actively reverse-engineering foreign technology and applying it to their military systems. However, because of the prohibition, NASA has been unable to even engage in scientific partnership with the Chinese space program. As China’s program is considerably funded and capable, particularly in the field of telescopes and space observation, this has doubtlessly come at a loss of scientific gain for both nations. Moreover, it has opened the trade space for Chinese space scientists to partner instead with the space programs and scientists of other countries – at the detriment to the United States’ scientific leadership and clout.

As evidenced by these policies and regulations, a divide clearly exists between the scientific community’s pursuit of knowledge and technology and the security community’s concerns that that knowledge and those technologies may be used for harm against the United States. The government, as both a resource for scientists and a protector of the American homeland, has tried to find a balance between this divide through policies that, with the lightest touch possible, limit the degree to which knowledge and technology can be acquired by possible foreign adversaries. Of course, any restriction comes at a loss for scientists, who naturally value completely open communication, information, and collaboration. As can be seen by historical and contemporary example and circumstances, even the most reasoned and rationale security policies can have significant impact on the American scientific community and their work. Such is the result of the unfortunate fact that, even while scientists engage in their work for the betterment of humanity and a greater understanding of the world around us, the products of science are inherently neutral – if an actor wishes to use knowledge or technology for harm, it can often easily be applied toward that end. This is particularly true in the modern day as technologies are rapidly advancing, proliferating, and becoming more capable. Considering that, the divide between these two communities and the policies that manifest as a result are likely to remain.

Addressing the Government Role in the Energy “Grand Challenge”

Energy, occupying a prominent position as a technology “grand challenge,” has invited significant levels of investment into capabilities that will further advance and improve its production. The importance of energy production to the United States cannot be understated; the energy sector contributes upwards of $1.5 trillion to the domestic economy. Considering this, the United States’ overall investments in energy technology research, and the results of those investments to date, have been seen by many as considerably inadequate. This essay examines the energy options available to the United States today, exploring their respective advantages and disadvantages. From that, it addresses where and how the United States government should intervene to address, and potentially correct, the imbalances of investment apparent in energy technology research.

The United States presently makes use of a mix of energy sources, some of which have a long history of utilization while others are emergent through new technologies, capabilities, and investments. Each have a set of unique advantages and disadvantage – technological, economic, and in utilization – which impact their effectiveness, efficiency, and cost. In approaching the proper government role in addressing the energy “grand challenge,” these advantages and disadvantages serve as important metrics that need be considered.

The predominance of American energy currently comes from non-renewable sources: oil, coal, and natural gas. As the traditional sources for American energy production, the advantages of these resources are multifold. The United States’ energy infrastructure – designed to support their extraction, transportation, and production – allows ease of access to the energy derived from them. In terms of cost, non-renewable sources are, at present, substantially cheaper than alternatives; the long history of electricity generation using these resources has progressively driven down associated costs through technological iteration. Moreover, there is a general abundance of these resources available in the United States – the United States is the world’s leader in natural gas and oil production. Yet, despite this, these resources bear significant disadvantages as well; hence the government’s push to catalyze the development of renewable alternatives. Key among them are the significant levels of carbon dioxide pollution (among other pollutants) that they produce and emit into the atmosphere. Climate scientists argue that increasing carbon dioxide levels will have irreversibly profound negative impacts on the planet’s environment and, accordingly, on humanity. Likewise, methods used to extract natural gas, such as fracking, have been targeted as the source of severe environmental degradation. Finally, though the United States may be the world’s largest producer of oil, it nonetheless continues to rely upon oil imports to fuel its broad energy production needs. National dependence on the global oil market raises national security concerns, as oil price volatility, as well as instability in oil producing regions of the globe, have an impact on the United States’ economy and security.

Alongside these non-renewables, another longstanding source of American energy production has been nuclear energy. Among nuclear energy’s advantages, it offers the potential for near-unlimited energy supply (as nuclear fuels, though not necessarily abundant, are long-lasting) and emits, relative to non-renewables, little pollution into the atmosphere. Nuclear power plants can technically be built anywhere and can operate with high load factors – often at 90%. Yet as history has shown, nuclear power plants often suffer serve cost overruns, passing costs off onto energy consumers. As government subsidies waned, so too have the economics of nuclear power. The issue of nuclear waste is considerable; radioactive and long-lasting, nuclear waste’s disposal has become difficult topic politically and logistically. Most importantly, there is significant public backlash against the use of nuclear energy – the perceived dangers associated with nuclear, exacerbated by the Three Mile Island and Fukushima incidents, have created considerable opposition against the construction of further nuclear power plants.

Finally, there are several renewable energy technologies that are beginning to come to the fore. By 2010, energy produced by non-nuclear renewable sources had grown to supply 8% of national consumption; this trend of growth is expected to continue. Among these technologies are hydro, wood, corn ethanol, geothermal, wind, and solar. While the diversity of renewable options and their increasing share of national energy production may suggest success in the development of renewable sources, their disadvantages are worth note.

Hydropower provides clean and essentially carbon-free power. However, hydropower stations, often in the form of dams, are complicated projects and often expensive to build. By their physical need for flowing water, their scalability and economics are limited by geography – most low-cost sites in the United States have already been developed. Moreover, hydropower output depends on the strength of their water source, which varies by season and year. Wood-derived power, meanwhile, is mostly available in the timber-producing states of the Southeast and Northwest. The growth of this source will necessarily track with lumber and paper production. Producing corn ethanol, the only renewable source competing with oil, is not a technically complex process. However, the economics of corn ethanol for fuel are poor; it contains only two-thirds as much energy per gallon as gasoline and requires the purchase of huge amounts of corn, which divert crops from the food supply. Subsidies that incentivized the forcing of ethanol onto the market were passed off in cost onto American consumers, who additionally must shoulder the cost of higher food prices because of the associated decrease in supply. Geothermal, which makes use of high-pressure water trapped in seismically active areas, leaves a very small environmental footprint. However, its scalability is understandably limited by geography and, accordingly, faces little prospects for production growth in the years ahead.

As the renewable energy sources that have perhaps garnered the most attention and enthusiasm in recent years, wind and solar produce a surprisingly limited share of the United States’ supply. Nonetheless, they have experienced rapid growth. Wind power is environmentally clean. However, as of 2012, its economics were costly compared to non-renewables; nonetheless, these costs are beginning to decline. Relying on the force of the wind, this source power is intermittent, has a substantially slow load factor, and is generally disproportionately available at night. Moreover, the most state-of-the-art turbines require large wind farms which generate considerable opposition from populated areas, thereby forcing them into remote areas which necessitate expensive transmission lines. Solar power, meanwhile, is tremendously environmentally friendly. However, with very low load factors and efficiency, it remains at present too expensive for widespread application and use. Like wind, however, its costs too have begun to considerably decline in recent years.

The quest for new energy options – particularly renewables – is and remains a priority for the federal government; however, intensive federal research and investment into these renewable sources has yet to produce transformative results capable of supplanting our need for non-renewables. Noting the disadvantages listed above, a key metric is their comparatively limited economics – considering load factor capability and efficiency – and high costs relative to non-renewables. This suggests that renewable energy technologies invested in and brought to market today have been prematurely commercialized; for a sector as large as energy, forcing the use of more expensive forms can have serious consequences for growth.

For renewables to succeed in the “grand challenge,” they must be cost-competitive when they launch into established markets and scale up rapidly if they are to make a difference. This “moment of market launch” problem, as important as the traditional “valley of death,” is the key issue underlying the imbalances of investment apparent in energy technology research. Addressing it will take government intervention in the “front-end,” and particularly “back-end,” of energy R&D. Of note, however, is that the government should legislate standardized support and intervene in common ways across technologies, so that technology neutrality is preserved and the optimal emergent technology has the best chance to succeed – a necessary approach if a sustainable, economical energy solution aligned to the pressures of the commercial market is to be found.

Foremost among suggested approaches regarding the front-end is the need for direct government support for long and short-term research and development and technology prototyping. Notably, the energy industry invests less than 1% of annual revenues in R&D for new technology. Laboratory work, being relatively inexpensive, is an area in which the government has a comparative advantage; the federal energy technology budget can be focused on conceptual and technical research. The establishment of Energy Frontier Research Centers, research hubs, and the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy are steps toward creating a more robust and capable front-end that accelerates innovation and cuts technology costs; government funding toward these initiatives should be prioritized. Beyond this, the government’s energy R&D portfolio should consider the “moment of market launch” issue facing new energy technologies. To that end, agencies should seek and support technologies that offer new functionalities upon market launch and therefore command a premium price. Likewise, agencies should strive to fast-forward research agendas to develop technologies to a stage where they are cost-competitive upon market launch.

Yet to directly address the key issues facing renewables, the government’s innovation system – historically focused on the front-end – will need to emphasis a focus on the back-end of energy R&D through the creation of initial commercial markets for new energy technologies. Among the suggestions issued, and debated, regarding appropriate government intervention in the back end are: tax credits – particularly those with incentives that offer additional benefits for the next stages of efficiency gains; loan guarantees – which should involve a wider risk portfolio and support more commercial-scale demonstrations than has traditionally been the case, in order to foster low market-entry costs; low-cost financing; and price guarantees. Government procurement programs are seen as a significant back-end enabler: boosting innovation and mandating efficiency in the federal building sector could provide a significant test bed and initial market for new energy technologies. Making greater use of federal regulatory authority to strengthen the back-end would be a powerful means to drive significant energy savings. Mandating minimum energy-efficiency standards is a method to incentivize the use of increasingly energy-efficient renewable sources; regulatory mandates could encourage the use of technologies that, in a non-regulated market, would face contested launch. Moreover, promoting an energy services model that rewards efficiency, not power sales, would, if coupled with financing tools to offset costs, help consumers achieve savings – boosting energy efficiency, after all, is among the cheapest methods toward progress in the energy sector. Through regulatory energy-efficiency mandates, the government need not pick “winners” and “losers” or selectively invest in particular technologies, but rather would incentivize efficiency iteration in a portfolio of technologies; the most commercially effective energy technology would emerge.

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