Pop quiz: How many stylists did Lindsay Lohan have on call when she was released from jail earlier this month? Got it? Now, how many Energy Innovation Hubs will the Department of Energy pick to receive more than $300 million of funding over the next half-decade?
If you found the first question easier to answer than the second, don't worry--you're in good company. But as Paula Apsell, our boss here at NOVA, told a roomful of reporters at the Television Critics Association Press Tour last week, it sure would "be great to see one percent less attention paid to Lindsay Lohan and that much more to science."
The answer to Question #2, by the way, is three. Three is five less than eight, which is the number of Energy Innovation Hubs the DOE laid out in its 2010 budget request. Congress declined to fund the remaining five would-be hubs--more on that later. First, let's talk about the hubs they did fund.
An energy innovation hub is a "virtual roof" designed to bring top scientists, engineers and industry experts together to tackle a major alternative energy challenge. The winning proposals include the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis in California, where Nate Lewis and his team of high-tech green thumbs will try to generate cheap fuel from sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water. Check out Lewis' work in NOVA scienceNOW's segment on fuel cells.
Next up: the Nuclear Energy Modeling and Simulation Energy Innovation Hub at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, where researchers will use computers to mimic what happens inside a nuclear reactor in an effort to make nuclear power plants safer and more efficient. The third hub pick hasn't been announced yet, but it will focus on making buildings more efficient.
But what about those five ghost hubs? Why did Congress say no? Perhaps the DOE failed to make a strong case. Or maybe Congress members were more interested in funding projects in their own districts than in distant, centralized hubs. (As Greenwire reporter Anne Mulkern pointed out, the DOE's funding package included $75.2 million in earmarks for energy research at local colleges and universities. That's the price of three energy hubs.) It's also possible that, with the high-risk/high-reward ARPA-E program and the Energy Frontiers Research Centers also on the table, the DOE ended up competing against itself.
Or maybe, while we were all focused on Lindsay Lohan's latest exploits, musing on whether Jennifer Aniston wants to be a mom, or clucking our disapproval of Speidi, we forgot to pay attention to alternative energy. We forgot to speak up and say that we care about this stuff. As MIT materials chemist Don Sadoway puts it, "This is one of those problems where everybody sees aligned interests." All "wavelengths of the political spectrum" can agree that developing alternative energy sources domestically and reducing dependence on foreign oil is a good thing, says Sadoway. In a polarized world, this is a rare island of consensus.
"If we commit the resources, we're going to make these discoveries sooner rather than later," adds Sadoway. Sure, "resources" means money--but it also means taking just a little bit of the mental energy we devote to Lindsay and turning it instead to the issues that affect our lives, and our planet, beyond the grocery checkout.