Defense Secretary Gates: Underfund Basic Research at America’s Peril

1/29/13Follow @bromano

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates distills a critical challenge to America’s continued prosperity and global leadership: Deliver to his generation all promised entitlements, or invest in research and education—the foundations of the country’s success.

“I think it’s fair to say America’s economic pre-eminence—and I would argue our national security, and national influence as well—is largely a consequence of near-continual investment, education, and research, mostly in the fields of science and technology over the past 60 years,” Gates says, speaking to the Washington Clean Technology Alliance policy conference in Seattle Monday. “How do you reconcile increasing costs for old people and starving the investment for the future generations? It’s a huge problem for the country.”

Ongoing federal and state budget cuts that gut basic science and education are the wrong answer, says Gates, a former CIA director and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient.

Before delving into research funding, Gates debunked the conventional wisdom that America’s newfound fossil fuels abundance eliminates the need to invest in clean energy.

While new drilling technologies and domestic oil and natural gas discoveries “could mitigate the rise of fuel prices and avoid the kind of Malthusian disaster predicted by some conservation advocates, low, stable petroleum prices—the primary disincentive to investing in clean technologies—are by no means assured,” Gates says.

Indeed, most U.S. recessions since World War Two were linked to oil price increases. “That was until Wall Street turned out to be even more volatile and dysfunctional than third-world petro states,” Gates quips.

“The only economic and environmentally viable solution for the long term is to shift to cleaner energy sources,” Gates says.

Under Gates, the Department of Defense—the largest single energy consumer in the world—has become a leader in the adoption of alternative, more efficient energy technologies, mainly because of the high cost in blood and treasure of supplying fuel to military missions in remote corners of the globe.

Gates, who first went to Washington, DC, 46 years ago, was not optimistic about federal legislation that would address climate change in a meaningful way anytime soon—a view that was shared to a lesser or greater extent by former Washington Sen. Slade Gorton, former Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, and other speakers Monday.

“Getting Washington to pay attention to anything that’s long-term is just hugely difficult, and I think in this area, even more so,” says Gates, the first Defense Secretary to have served under two presidents of different parties.

Instead, Gates offers a persuasive argument for federal investments in research and development and basic science as a fundamental building block to solving manifold challenges in energy and climate, and in other spheres where, he says, the U.S. is losing its edge.

He supports a call for a Manhattan Project-style mobilization … Next Page »

Benjamin Romano is editor of Xconomy Seattle. Email him at bromano [at] xconomy.com. Follow @bromano

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