Candid Q&A between UCLA Today Editor and U.S. Undersecretary for Science, Raymond L. Orbach Following His Keynote at UCLA Engineering’s Third Annual Technology Forum

The UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering’s third annual Technology Forum took place recently with the school’s first L.M.K. Boelter Lecture, delivered by U.S. Undersecretary for Science Raymond L. Orbach. During his lecture, Orbach discussed the challenges and opportunities for basic research in the nation’s energy portfolio and addressed current projects of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

As Undersecretary for Science, Orbach is responsible for planning, coordinating and overseeing the U.S. Energy Department’s research and development programs, its 17 national laboratories, and its scientific and engineering education activities. Orbach also directs the department’s Office of Science, where he oversees a $4 billion budget for research in high energy and nuclear physics, basic energy sciences, magnetic fusion energy, biological and environmental research, and computational science. Prior to joining the DoE, Orbach was chancellor of UC Riverside and from 1982 to 1992 served as provost of UCLA’s College of Letters and Science.

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Following his keynote, Orbach sat down with editor of UCLA Today, Cynthia Lee, for a candid conversation regarding the future of science and technology in this country, the importance of research funding, how we will solve our energy problems, and what role engineering schools across the country will play in all of this.

CL: Two years ago, the now famous “Rising Above the Gathering Storm” report chronicled the decline of American competitiveness and preeminence in science and technology. President Bush and Congress were all getting behind it. Congress passed the American Competes Act and President Bush launched the competitiveness initiative. What has happened since then? Have we gotten any further?

RO: I would say that we have gotten further in the sense of understanding that there is a problem but we have not solved that problem. A large part of it is resonant in our educational system which is also addressed in “Rising Above the Gathering Storm.”

There is also a brand new report out by Norm Augustine, also from the National Academies of Sciences, titled, “Is America Falling off the Flat Earth.” And in there he chronicles what has happened in those two years.

Mr. Augustine talks about the indicators mentioned in the “Gathering Storm” report and what is happening to them. I think reading his latest work you become concerned that somehow the country is not responding to the challenges which were laid out in “Rising Above the Gathering Storm.” People seem to be aware of it but there does not seem to be an excitement and an initiative for the whole American public.

He has a wonderful chapter, a horrible chapter actually, titled, “The Dinosaurs Never Saw it Coming,” where he explains that of all high school graduates, only 15% are capable of going onto college and majoring in mathematics, science, or engineering. That means 85% of our high school graduates, even if they wanted to, are not able to major in the sciences or in engineering. That is a staggering number. And that number has not improved. And so he is saying it in the most forceful way he knows how that we have got a problem here and we are not addressing it.

I think the shock of $130 plus a barrel for oil will have an effect, more so, than the two volumes he has written. People will recognize that we are taking our resources and sending them abroad to buy oil, at the same time we are polluting the atmosphere. There has just got to be a better way. I’m hopeful that the public, and this is ultimately what it comes down to, will recognize the need to change the way we do business.

There is a feeling that somehow everything will come out okay but what I said in my lecture was that marginal changes in the way we produce energy will not work. We need to look at things from a very different perspective and use the tools we have in this century to address these issues. And that was the theme and substance of what I was presenting.

CL: And you think the American public will translate that need for cheaper cleaner energy sources to education?

RO:
I hope so. If they do not then I think the predictions that Mr. Augustine has made may very well come true. He points out that very few major countries have ever lasted longer than 300 years and we are beginning to approach the end of 300 years if you count from the 18th century.

So it is really a self-determination question. We will decide for ourselves whether we maintain our strength and whether energy, which is the backbone of American productivity and competitiveness can be turned using investments to the future. The grave danger is that we will invest only in short-term fixes and there are no short-term fixes. You need long-term investment to pay off and that’s where I am hopeful the American public will respond.

CL: This week, Lawrence Livermore National Lab is laying off 440 employees. This includes 110 scientists and engineers with decades of experience. And it seems like universities are baring the brunt of this decline in funding. What do you think we owe this to, the fact that so many people have left or are leaving?

RO: Well, it is not just Lawrence Livermore, Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC) laid off 125 scientist and engineers this February. The Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory will be laying off about 150. These people will have worked at these laboratories for decades, as you said, and these are the very people who have the capability of helping our country get out of this difficulty.

I think it is a consequence of short-term investment and a failure to recognize that long-term approaches are the only way that we will solve our energy and our technology problems. This is what I meant about the American public realizing that there is a problem here.

It is awful that these wonderful people who have contributed so much are treated this way and I hope that will galvanize opinion to realize that we are going in the wrong direction. This is not the way that our country is going to succeed. I am hopeful and everyone I have talked to in Congress and in the administration feels the same way, namely that we have got to invest in our future.

So I think we are going to see it but right now it is a very difficult intermediate time. Also think if you are a student. If you see these layoffs, do you want to go into that field? So it has a ripple effect throughout the whole educational system, which is very unsettling.

CL: Since the Department of Energy is one of our main funders of basic research at UCLA, everybody is interested in what the status of funding is for basic research and why it has been declining in the last few years. What are the prospects for the current funding proposal?

RO: Actually the funding for basic research has not diminished in absolute terms. When you account for inflation, it has either stayed flat or has slightly gone up. And it also varies across disciplines. The areas we are interested in, namely the physical sciences and the associated biological sciences… We have not had any increases in those areas that would give us what I would call real opportunities to develop as we would wish.

But the support in Congress is quite good. Congress and the President understand that investment in basic research for energy is critical. We just had a couple of difficult financial years. In 2007, we had a continuing resolution for the whole year and then in 2008, we had an omnibus bill that was very limited.

CL: With the price of gas going up so rapidly and economic turmoil everywhere, do you think that’s going to give your argument for more funding for basic research a lift?

RO: Yes, I think both basic and applied. I think you are going to see in the next Congress a very substantial investment in energy research. It needs to be in both areas, both at the basic and at the applied because ultimately we wanted to get these ideas into the marketplace. And you have, as I mentioned this morning, opportunities over a wide spectrum of aspects that will deal with energy production, energy storage and energy delivery.

And then the next step is to pilot plant that so that you can actually see what is economical, what can make a difference. Then ultimately the private sector will invest in performance in the marketplace.

UCLA has a particular advantage in that respect because of its connection to industry, which was emphasized this morning by a number of speakers. So if you look at the continuum between what I called “grand challenge science,” opportunities of the 21st century, and the opportunities to develop new mechanisms for energy production, and then actually put them into place, that is what we are looking for.

CL: And Congress can see the results of that?

RO: Congress understands it. The President understands it. I think we have opportunities. In some way, what we are doing now is explaining to the American public what those opportunities are. Some of them seem very mysterious, nanotechnology and quantum effects and so on. They are in fact very fundamental and what I am trying to do at this technology forum that you have put together today is try to express to the public what opportunities are present.

And it is my belief that with oil at $130 a barrel and up, and gasoline at $4 a gallon, people are beginning to understand the need to invest and what we are trying to do is to give the American public the sense of the opportunities… where the investments can pay off. That is what we are about and my belief is that the public will respond and understand that energy is critical to the economy.

There is another factor that is just as important as energy itself and that’s the environment. And you’ll notice in my talk that I coupled the two together: energy production and protection of the environment.

There is enough coal in the country to produce enough electricity for hundreds of years but it produces carbon dioxide. It produces sulfur. It produces nitrogen gases. It is very destructive to the environment. So how can we take advantage of what resources we have and protect the environment? That was the theme that underpinned everything that I talked about today.

So the thing that we are after, what makes it different from 20 years ago is not only the price of oil, but most importantly the state of the environment. Though there is enough oil to go around, we are seeing a very high cost for it. Every time you burn a gallon of gasoline in your car, you’re producing carbon dioxide, you’re adding to the greenhouse gases. You may have the energy you want but you also have consequences.

So can we come up with the amount of energy we need, while at the same time protect the environment? It’s something we haven’t dealt with as a country before and that is why I’ve focused on those two as critically linked if we were to maintain the future of our planet.

CL: And it is not just going to be one form of energy production that you think will solve our energy problems. You think it’s going to be a combination of…

RO: Yes, all of the above. Part of it is due to geographic distribution. There is no silver bullet that is going to solve all our energy problems. In transportation you want an energy source that is mobile. For grid electricity, for base load, you want a stationary source. And then there is also a distribution geographically of your energy usage. So you want to optimize the energy with the use and with the distribution.

For example, a base load provides electricity. That base load can be coal, which half of our electricity comes from. It can be nuclear reactions, nuclear reactors. That is 20% and so on. But those are huge power plants. They don’t move.

If you are in a car you want to be able to get from here to there and so you need to take that electricity and do something with it… Electrical energy storage, those are batteries and the super capacitors. You want to provide fuel that will power an internal combustion engine in a car because you’re going to end up eventually with plug-in hybrids.

Well, if you produce fuel from bio-sources… right now, you produce it from corn. What you produce is ethanol but that’s all in the mid-west. How do you get the ethanol to the East or West Coast? It turns out you can’t put ethanol through the normal pipelines because it absorbs water. So there’s a distribution problem. You can produce it but you can’t use it.

So therefore what we’re looking at are not corn based but what we call cellulose-based fuels which can be produced in very dry, very salty, saline environments. You can produce them in a local region and then the ability to turn that into fuel can also be local. So you can generate the fuel and use it in the same geographic area.

Yet there is another aspect of how to avoid the serious cost of distribution… For example, we lose a substantial amount of our electric power because it comes over such a long distance and we lose that energy in the power lines. Another area we are looking at is superconductivity, where you can transfer electricity from its source, say a dam to its use, say a city, without loss.

We have three demonstration plants now where we conduct the electricity without loss using high temperature superconducting cables. Yet another way of addressing efficiency associated with energy usage.

CL:
In all of this, what role do you hope engineering schools across the country will play?

RO: Engineering schools are our future. It is where students receive their training. The engineering program is a way to do basic research. It is also a way to move into these new fields and get that information and excitement into students’ minds. Hopefully this will encourage them to stay with science and engineering and be productive for our country.

The engineering programs are the essential pipeline for competitiveness for our country. You cannot survive as a service economy only. It is just not possible. Somebody has to manufacture something. Somebody has to make things work and that is what engineers do and this School is critical in that regard.

Also, you heard today the combination of the engineering school (the Chancellor talked about it), the physical sciences, and the medial sciences… There’s a special relationship, not just at UCLA, but especially at UCLA, that takes engineering across the campus. It is not just an isolated entity. It is part of the full campus life.

Engineering in my view is the glue that holds together various disciplines and produces results that are immediate for our competitiveness.

CL: This is your last year with the department of energy, what do you consider your most valuable achievement?

RO: I think that will be determined when I leave. The most important, most satisfying part of my experience has been to create and support new fields of science for our country. I am personally identified with the renaissance of high end computation leadership facilities for computers. But it has also been the organization of the scientific program of our country and personal interaction with Congress that I feel is so important.

I hope that I have contributed to strengthening the ties between the administration and congress. And finally to delivering that message to the public… that is why I am here and why I have been traveling the country, to express how important science is and how critical it is to the future of our nation.