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MIT Responds to State of Union Address

By Tongyan Lin

In his State of the Union address January 31, President Bush announced two plans: the American Competitive Initiative and the Advanced Energy Initiative. Last Monday, the proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2007 was unveiled, detailing the specifics of the two initiatives.

According to the address, the Energy Initiative includes a 22 percent ($381 million) increase in clean-energy research for the Department of Energy in FY07. The American Competitive Initiative is a plan to promote math and science innovation and education and research in the physical sciences over the next ten years.

The ACI would make permanent a research and development tax cut to private organizations, and double the budget for basic research in the physical sciences over the next ten years. A portion goes towards training high school teachers in math and science.

June L. Matthews PhD ’67, professor of physics and director of the laboratory for nuclear science, said the ACI signalled an significantly better outlook for funding science. The long-term plan is a good sign for the future, Matthews said.

The total cost of the ACI over the next 10 years would be $137 billion, with $50 billion going towards research in basic sciences. Seventy-five percent of the proposed ACI budget for FY07 goes towards the tax cut, which is currently renewed annually.

Fifteen percent of the ACI in FY07 will go towards DOE as well as the National Science Foundation and National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Areas of focus for the basic physical sciences research in the ACI include high energy physics, nuclear physics, fusion energy physics, advanced computing research, and coherent optics.

Secretary of Energy Samuel W. Bodman ScD ’65 said in a press briefing last week that the FY07 budget would support 2,600 more researchers than in FY06. These researchers work in both national labs and universities, Bodman said.

Increase in science funding

The apportionment for physical sciences in FY06 had been less than in previous years, and at a faculty meeting last September, MIT President Susan Hockfield had described the future of science funding from the government as dismal.

Steven G Steadman, an assistant director for scientific administration and former DOE employee, said that one key project funded by the ACI is the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider, used by over 1000 physicists including some at MIT.

The FY2006 budget did not provide enough money to operate RHIC; however, the proposed FY07 budget will allow it to operate the entire year, Matthews said.

He also said that practically all the research at the LNS was provided by the DOE. In addition, the DOE provides funding for the Center for Theoretical Physics.

Matthews said the initiative helps address the “imbalance between life and physical sciences” in recent years.

Funding for life sciences remained steady this year. Hockfield, however, wrote that the “proposal for little or no increase in funding for research in the life sciences would set back the extraordinary progress that has been made over the last decade.”

Aims too ambitious, student says

In the State of the Union, Bush touted technologies such as nuclear energy, solar and wind energy, bio-ethanol fuels, and hybrid cars as areas for focus in the AEI.

Salem Esber G, an executive chair of the MIT Energy Club, said that these areas of research involve a mix of short- and long-term approaches to developing clean energy, some being studied by members of the MIT faculty.

Esber, however, thought that the aims of the AEI stated in the State of the Union were too ambitious. While Bush stated a goal of the AEI was to make a new kind of ethanol “practical and competitive within six years,” Esber said large scale production was not realistic at all. At best, Esber said, he expects a few pilot plants.

Esber said the initiative does not taking into account an important factor, the efficiency of energy-consuming products, though Bush did mention better batteries for hybrid and battery cars in his address.

Allison Macfarlane, a research associate in the Science, Technology, and Society Department, also noted the need for increased fuel efficiency in cars. Bio-Ethanol creates as much pollution as regular fossil fuel, she said.

Despite the advertised increased focus in clean energy, “the budget of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory was cut by 15 percent,” said Macfarlane, meaning some “people working on wind and biomass” would have to be laid off.

A substantial portion of the AEI would give $250 million to the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) to develop clean nuclear energy.

Part of the program would fund the development of a reprocessing facility; another would help design a new kind of nuclear reactor, called a fast reactor, which uses fast neutrons. Macfarlane said that the technology to develop fast reactors was probably “20 years in the future.”

A reprocessing facility recycles used nuclear fuel from nuclear power plants. The side products of reprocessing are relatively large amounts of low-level waste, as well as plutonium that could be used in nuclear weapons, Macfarlane explained. She criticized the proposal for the problems it would create for nuclear proliferation.

In a press briefing last week, Bodman stated that GNEP would “take laboratory data that has been already developed on [reprocessing] … to produce a material that is not useful for nuclear weapons.”

Awareness helps bring funding

Steadman noted several causes of the increase in science funding. He credited the work of Bodman, a former Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT, and Dr. Ray Orbach, the Director of the Office of Science.

Hockfield also wrote that a number of reports increased awareness of the necessity of investing in research. Hockfield wrote in an e-mail that the “efforts of MIT and other leading universities have had a significant impact on the increase in funding.”

Matthews was also optimistic about the proposed ACI budget for FY07 being passed. “Normally, Congress has been very favorable to basic research,” he said. Hockfield also wrote about “major legislative packages to spur the innovation process through new funding for research and science education,” which have been introduced in the Senate, and which “MIT and other universities are following closely.”