Investment in R&D for sustainable technology

I just finished Common Wealth, by Jeffrey Sachs. The book is a fairly dry layout of why we aren’t meeting the UN’s Millennium Development Goals and what the consequences of that failure may be. I can’t recommend the book to the casual reader, because of its incredible denseness, but it does contain a fair amount of useful data for those of us who are thinking in the Bright Green mode.

One tidbit that I found interesting was Sachs’ estimation of the required investment in research and development in sustainable technology in order to address the issues in climate change, water and food security, disease, et al. that the book covered. This required investment was set at 0.2% of GNP of the developed world. By his calculations, which were likely made in 2007, this amount is equal to 70 billion dollars. While his estimation methodology was unfortunately not clearly disclosed, lets run with it for the time being.

By comparison, the 2007 NSF budget was 5.9 G$ (source: NSF.gov), the NIH budget was 29 G$ (source: NIH.gov, and the Department of Defense research budget was 72 G$ (source: Defenselink). Exclusive of other smaller research programs, such as the Department of Energy research programs and NASA, this represents around 107 G$ in funded research. By comparison, the 2007 cost of the Iraq War (specifically excluding Afghanistan and other “War on Terror” expenditures) was 123 G$ (source: CBO)

The implication of these numbers is that it appears to be quite feasible to fund the required research and development in sustainable technology, perhaps even unilaterally. Further, investing that 70 G$ above and beyond current research funding would at least partially address the “green jobs” development that President-elect Obama has been advocating. While some portion of this money would go to academic grants, some non-trivial portion of the funding should be made available in a SBIR/STTR program. Additionally, some technology-driven small business development funds, something like an angel investment fund for sustainable technology, would encourage green job growth while meeting these sustainable technology R&D goals.

It also seems reasonable that such an initiative would incentivize growth in the science and engineering fields. Despite a lot of ado about the need to train more scientists and engineers, many technical fields are and have been producing a glut of students with advanced degrees (as Daniel Greenberg and various industry publications, such as Physics Today and C&E News, have pointed out.) It also goes without saying that once a technical professional transitions from science and engineering to business or law, they do not return – the disparity in pay scales is generally insurmountable, at least in my experience. Driving the demand for technical professionals with these R&D incentives could absorb at least part of this glut, preventing the loss of the most talented individuals from the technical fields.

Above all, the goal of this funding is worthwhile: many of the challenges facing the world have solutions that are either in whole or in part technological. While I am always skeptical of throwing money at problems, I find a world of difference between things like funding direct food aid to developing countries and funding research in drylands agriculture and permaculture in order to improve cropland yields while reversing soil degradation. The former is simply spreading the wealth while the latter so very clearly creating new wealth for the entire world. When these Millennium goals are met, political scientists and economists argue that conflicts over scarce resources in the developing world will dwindle. It seems reasonable , then, that the best investment in foreign aid and development should start here. Hopefully, President-elect Obama’s advisors will encourage him to champion this opportunity to make such an investment in sustainable technology.