January 7, 2012

Energy Innovation and the Department of Defense


Last spring I spent a lot of time learning about military history. Not really by choice, but rather in an effort to better understand technological innovation. In my classes with Dan Sarewitz and ASU's president Michael Crow, we constantly discussed how many of the core innovations of the 20th century had military origins. In other words, "Steve Jobs didn't just invent the computer in his garage" (paraphrasing my professors). Both computers and the internet have a distinct military heritage. 

The military often plays a role in technological innovation because most technologies need an "incubation" stage before they are commercialized. Since private firms are sometimes unwilling to take on this risk, the federal government often plays a role in incubating technologies (many of which will turn out to be failures) through research and development contracts (called procurement). Because of this connection between military spending and technological innovation, Sarewitz describes the possible backlash if defense budgets get cut in a NYT article yesterday. The article states, 
As the Pentagon confronts the prospect of cutting its budget by about 10 percent over the next decade, even some people who do not count themselves among its traditional allies warn that the potential impact on scientific innovation is being overlooked. Spending less on military research, they say, could reduce the economy’s long-term growth.
This is not good news, but Sarewitz and others are not calling for more weaponry, but rather more public-good oriented investments, such as in renewable energy. Because the military is a key user of technology, it has a stake in developing commercial technologies from airplanes to computers to renewable energy, which we reap the benefits of. And this shows the difference between the military’s capacity to promote technological innovation and, say, the Department of Energy’s (DoE). The DoE is ultimately not the end user, and is driven by different scientific and public policy motivations. This, plus relatively declining investments in renewable energy through the DoE, result in a stagnant pool of innovation. Yet soldiers’ lives depend on fuel efficiency, sources, and transportation for military aircraft and vehicles, prompting the Department of Defense to pay very close attention to energy issues and even climate change. 

There is an ongoing question throughout the history of science policy on the relationships between the military, industry, and universities. Eisenhower famously warned about the “military-industrial complex” in 1961. Yet regardless of the military applications of alternative energy technologies, this presents an interesting strategy for commercializing technologies on a national, if not global, scale. Many environmental advocates envision the government supporting an Apollo of Manhattan Project for clean energy. The Department of Defense can take on projects with a high risk of failure that other agencies and companies can't, because of their access to research and development funding.

We can relate energy systems back to Freeman and Louca’s work on Kondratian waves and core inputs in our sociotechnical system. They discuss how coal and iron became integral to England’s national industrial infrastructure only after railways brought down prices. Even so, there was political and cultural resistance to steam engines in some places (just like now, there's resistance to windmills, and other NIMBY issues with alternative energy). Energy is one of the most essential core inputs, and a change in this could fundamentally alter our society in ways that we cannot imagine (like how two-hundred years ago, it would seem preposterous that we could get fertilizer from the air). The military could play a role in incubating new alternative energy technologies that are not yet technologically possible or commercially viable. I agree with Sarewitz that I don't necessarily want to see more guns, but I also don't want to see energy security fall by the wayside.

Further reading: 

Chris Freeman and Francisco Louca,
As Time Goes By: From the Industrial Revolutions to the Information Revolution.

David Mowrey, Paths of Innovation: Technological Change in 20th-Century America.

Vernon Ruttan,
Is War Necessary for Economic Growth?: Military Procurement and Technology Development.

1 comment:

  1. Nicely put. I am heartened that the navy is using "waste" biofuels as opposed to potential food sources. It is very excited that the military is able to experiment with multiple forms of energy innovations. Having a REtest-bed in place to illustrate its success will be influential in the long term.

    I think your point about the military also being the end user is key. It is difficult for me to support them in general, and wonder if the money and power couldn't be shifted to another department, yet the end user aspect is still staring me in the face.

    I do worry about the energy security argument a bit. What happens to military funding once we are no longer dependent on foreign oil? Does there always need to be a resource (land, minerals, ideology) war in order to spur innovation? We will still need to mine rare earth metals for solar (PV) projects, for now at least. hmm...

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