Q&A With Dan Sarewitz

February 11, 2009 |

The following is a question and answer question with Breakthrough Institute friend and ally Dr. Dan Sarewitz. Dr. Sarewitz is the co-Director of the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes at Arizona State University. His thinking about how innovation happens, and how government and society can best foster technology innovation makes his insights invaluable to policymakers, engineers and others who seek to transform's America's energy system from its current fossil-fuel dependent form into a clean, low carbon system that utilizes a myriad of new technologies.

Adam: Dr. Sarewitz, your work on innovation policy has forced you to confront some hard truths about the limits of policy in driving technology innovation and deployment. Would you say that we know how to properly draft policy that stimulates the proper technology innovation necessary to transition to a low-carbon energy system in America?

Dr. Sarewitz: In fact we do understand how to stimulate innovation. What we don't understand is how to drive innovation down particular social paths to yield particular society-wide outcomes over particular time frames.

Adam: So setting a goal like "80 percent emissions reduction by 2050"--deciding on an outcome and a time frame--aren't exactly helpful to the job of decarbonizing an energy system?

Dr. Sarewitz: Not in my opinion. The energy system is deeply embedded in society. The goal of achieving some particular level of decarbonization by some particular date is more social engineering than technological innovation. Is there any reason to think that a 40-year carbon production plan would work better than a 5-year steel or wheat production plan? Society has no experience in doing such things well. The best we can do is create what seem to be the right initial conditions, and then discover the right paths as we go.

Then the best thing to do would be to begin a project with a specific mission--such as to drive down the costs of clean energy--but not a set time frame? So what would you say about something like Al Gore's call to generate 100 percent of America's electricity using clean energy in 10 years, modeled after the Apollo project?

Metaphors like the Apollo and Manhattan project are unhelpful. Worse, they are misleading. Those huge efforts were aimed at developing one specific technology outcome with little regard to cost and with no need for hundreds of millions of people to change the way they behave--a relatively easy task. The energy challenge is completely different.

Is there some better metaphor that people can use to conceptualize the magnitude and of the challenge--and also how we might go about getting started?

The Cold War is a much better analogy--not because I like war metaphors--I don't--but because during the Cold War the U.S. figured out how to effectively implement a suite of industrial policies aimed at catalyzing technologies ranging from computers to advanced materials to satellites that enabled the United States to out-compete the Soviet Union. Unenforceable top-down mandates or quixotic timetables were unnecessary. Lasting commitments to incremental progress fueled by technological change did the job.

So what lessons does the Cold War leave for policy makers hoping to accelerate the clean energy transition?

Similar to the Cold War, we need an industrial policy for decarbonizing the energy system that is aggressive yet incremental; expansive yet focused. The menu of effective policy tools for accelerating innovation is well known and includes robust R&D investments; efficiency performance standards; government procurement; tax incentives; and partnerships among government, academic, and private sector institutions. Rather than depending on a top-down mandate--like a massive national cap-and-trade bill--a successful industrial policy would be adopted in small steps and would seek to advance many technologies along many paths. Its various components could be sped up or slowed down, terminated or replicated, as we gradually learn what works well and what does not. The current scale of effort in the U.S. is pathetically modest compared to what is needed.

And you don't worry that this sort of bottoms-up approach to encouraging technology innovation lacks the sense of urgency created by a top-down mandate?

On the contrary. This approach is essential because it a) keeps us from committing to huge and unmanageable programs that ultimately will lead to disillusionment and perhaps backlash; b) keeps the politics fairly small scale and manageable; c) keeps expectations appropriately in check so that we also focus appropriate attention on adaptation and resilience.

Any last comments?

There are huge sunk political costs in the current approach emphasizing cap-and-trade. So, despite the utter lack of progress so far, I have little expectation that cap-and-trade will fade away. But my expectation is that a pragmatic strategy for addressing climate change will increasingly find a political voice, and the lessons of the past 50 years of innovation policy in the U.S. provide a powerful foundation for implementing that strategy.

Well, thanks for talking with us Dan, we always enjoy keeping up to date on your work.