More on the Stimulus

By John Conway | January 27, 2009 4:45 pm

Two weeks ago the US House released their nascent version of the $825 billion stimulus bill, which later passed in committee and was introduced to the House floor yesterday.

Meanwhile, the Senate unveiled its version of the stimulus package, with a much more terse summary. Oddly, the section specifically mentioning science only talks about NSF and NASA:


National Science Foundation (NSF) Research: $1.4 billion in funding for scientific research, infrastructure and competitive grants.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA): $1.5 Billion for NASA, including $500 million for Earth science missions to provide critical data about the Earth’s resources and climate.

What about the DOE Office of Science? NIH? NIST? NOAA? I surely hope that the next summary will call out items to the level the House summary did. But, further down, under Energy, we find

$40 billion to the Department of Energy for development of clean, efficient, American

Whoa. Suddenly, the DOE is not your daddy’s Atomic Energy Commission any more! (Or your grand-dad’s Office of Naval Research…) In fact, I winder just how many congresscritters really know the history of the DOE, that its 2008 $24.6 billion budget included

  • – $8.7 billion for energy programs, of which $4.4 billion is for science, and most of the rest is for actual energy projects, and
  • – $15.5 billion for weapons activities, of which $5.4 billion is for nuclear cleanup.

By my calculation, therefore, the non-weapons, non-basic-research part of DOE’s budget is less than 20% of the whole DOE program.

So what will this mysterious $40 billion for in the Senate plan be for? Do they seriously envision giving ten times the present budget to that portion of the DOE and say, “here, invent clean, efficient American energy”. I am going to guess that the “$40 billion” is going to augment the DOE Office of Science programs in basic research by something like the $1.9 billion in the House bill (of which $400 million was specifically tagged for energy research). But what about the other $38 billion?

Anyway it all boggles the mind. No doubt the so-called “Clean Coal” people will be all over this, as will the T. Boone Pickens compressed natural gas types, those who want enormous (and I mean freakin’ enormous – do the math) wind farms and the supporters of first- (ick) and second-generation biofuels. (I say “ick” because corn-based methanol is simply a big waste of resources). To me it seems that that “energy” is clearly the buzzword these days. (It will certainly be in the title of my next proposal, but with “high” in front of it.)

Two main areas of debate and discussion spring to my mind here. Firstly, I think that it is high time to merge the disparate funding agencies which support basic research into a cabinet-level Department of Science, rather than a dozen little agencies. This was discussed (and eventually dismissed) in the early Clinton years, the argument essentially being that “the more spigots the better.”

Secondly, we have the much more difficult question: Where will all this new, efficient, clean American energy actually come from? Presently we have in place systems for nuclear, hydro, solar, fossil, wind, and geothermal. Fossil fuels dominate by far in the US. It is interesting, in fact, to look at the DOE’s Energy Information Agency’s chart of where it all comes from and where it goes (as of 2007):

As you can see we are rather heavily dependent on coal, oil, and gas. I wonder if the average person on the street quite realizes just how deep we are into carbon based energy…

I am all for research into new approaches to energy, but we are going to have to be realistic about the basic underlying physics. And we had better fund basic research in physics in our universities if a new generation of physicists is going to emerge to develop new energy sources, and spend all these taxpayer dollars effectively.

We live in amazing times.


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