Two weeks ago I spent time with some of the top scientists in the field of alternative energy, including John Holdren, the director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, a.k.a. our national "science czar." We were attending a conference in Washington, D.C., that drew CEOs of Fortune 100 companies, as well as entrepreneurs and investors. I came away convinced that the United States, which for decades has been the world leader in science and technology, will soon be eclipsed by China and other countries. Alternative energy is the next tidal wave in tech innovation. If we miss it, we will not only weaken our economy and harm our national security—we will turn ourselves into a second-rate nation. And as I sat there listening to the experts speak, all I could think was, we're doomed. (Click here to follow Daniel Lyons)
It's not because our scientists aren't brilliant. They are. But look at what they're up against: a noisy babble of morons and Luddites, the "Drill, baby, drill" crowd, the birthers, and tea-party kooks who have done their best to derail health-care reform and will do the same to any kind of energy policy. Holdren has an undergraduate degree from MIT and a Ph.D. from Stanford; he has won countless awards for his work on nuclear proliferation, climate change, alternative energy, and population growth. But now he must sell his ideas to people who couldn't pass high-school algebra—and who believe they know more than he does.
In Holdren's case the attacks began after TV madman Glenn Beck claimed Holdren advocates controlling population growth by putting sterilants in drinking water and forcing women to have abortions. No matter that the claims are not true, and that Beck is a clown who cares only about boosting ratings for his show. The dopes howled for Holdren to resign. Holdren told me the controversy was no big deal, "just a blip." But this kind of idiocy makes scientists and policymakers timid. I moderated a panel that included Holdren and asked him whether we ought to put a tax on gasoline. This would reduce CO2 emissions, lessen our dependence on foreign oil, and spur investments in wind and solar. Holdren ducked the question, saying tax policy wasn't his area of expertise. I'm told that a gas tax is a political nonstarter. But it shouldn't be. Also, if our nation's top scientist can't freely speak his mind, what does that say about us?
At the same conference in Washington—the National Energy Summit, hosted by the Council on Competitiveness, with NEWSWEEK as a media partner—Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican from Alaska, spoke during lunch and explained, with a straight face, a bill she has proposed that would exempt power plants and manufacturing companies from having to comply with EPA standards about CO2 emissions. Her reason: we don't want to hurt the economy. Murkowski's bill is an example of a tactic that people in the computer industry call FUD—fear, uncertainty, and doubt. IBM used to spread FUD to stymie new companies that came along with cheaper, better computers. The gist was, "Sure, the new stuff is better, but it's risky. And it will be painful to switch. Why not play it safe and stick with what you've got?" That's what Murkowski and her allies would have us believe about energy technology.
Meanwhile, the rest of the world is racing past us. In solar energy, the leaders are Japan, Germany, and China. In wind, it's Germany, Spain, and Denmark. In nuclear, it's France. "You can go up and down the list—in some cases we're players, but we're no longer leading," says Ralph Cicerone, president of the National Academy of Sciences. The current administration has boosted spending on energy research. But to really catch up, Cicerone says we'll need "a sustained commitment the likes of which are hard to see in American history."
Do we really have the stomach for that? I doubt it. A half century ago we had our "sputnik moment," when, spurred by fear of falling behind the Soviets, we made big investments in science, technology, and education. But we're a different people now. Cosseted by 50 years of prosperity, we are fearful of change and unwilling to make short-term sacrifice for long-term gain. Alternative energy is going to be an enormous market, one that will give birth to the next Google and Microsoft. Will those future tech giants be based in the United States? Only if we support our scientists instead of throwing up obstacles.