Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Reader Comments, CO2 edition

A reader asks if I prefer innovative prizes or research grants to promote carbon sequestration and capture technologies.

The simple answer would be both. Let's throw everything we can at it.

But given the choice of one or the other, I disagree with the reader. Although innovative prizes, like the Ansari X-Prize seem really neat and do indeed promote innovation, they don't really enable the whole of the population access to innovate. In order to win the 10 million dollar X-Prize, Burt Rutan, Richard Branson and Paul Allen invested nearly 100 million dollars...not exactly a good investment. But for them the goal was more important than the cost.
However, not every researcher or organization could enter such a contest, as they simply don't have the capital to fund such an effort. And so it became a race of three or four organizations with capital to achieve the goal. Not exactly a wide-fielded effort.

Conversely, if we spend in terms of research grants, it enables researchers with really good ideas, but no capital, to get small grants to get data, which will enable them to get larger grants, which will translate into tech-transfer grants, which turn into products. The government, in this case, becomes a venture capitalist. Saying this works better is an understatement because rather than having a huge majority of the intellectual property owned by scheming venture capitalists, the government acts more like an angel investor, and doesn't even ask for its investment back (rather it assumes it will receive it down the chain in tax revenue).
Of course, grant-based investment does have its issues, as I have touched on before, like the propensity of the buddy-system, where researchers butter up and lobby funding sources like DARPA to fund projects long after they dead-end, or the tendency for universities to hoard grant dollars that, having been earned by the professor that wrote the grant, should be spent by him/her. Or the tendency for administrative overhead costs to eat huge chunks out of a grant.

Nevertheless, if we want to foster an atmosphere where any poor kid with a genuinely good idea can make it big (and not be owned by his financiers), then I have to believe research-grant-based investment in carbon sequestration and capture technologies is the way to go.

Disclaimer: TAE's employer primarily funds its research through government grant sources.

1 comment:

Benjamin Dueholm said...

Prizes and carbon races and the like are all well and good, but I don't think you've taken the potential for reductions given current technology seriously enough. I was just hearing on the radio that Denmark has half the per-capita carbon emissions that we have. They're just as rich as we are (maybe a little richer) and they don't have any super magic technology that sequesters carbon. Surely we could get part of the way there by mimicing some policy choices other countries have already made?