Time for a New Manhattan Project?

By Roosevelt Institute |

To solve our energy problem, President Obama must bring together the country’s best and brightest and devote significant government resources.

In a speech before students at George Washington University this week, President Obama insisted that it was time for the United States to develop a new national energy policy that would reduce our nation’s dependence on oil. “We’ve known about the dangers of our oil dependence for decades,” he said, with presidents and politicians having promised time and time again to secure America’s “energy dependence.” But so far, “that promise has gone unmet.”

He then went on to say that we “cannot keep going from shock to trance on the issue of energy security, rushing to propose action when gas prices rise, then hitting the snooze button when they fall again.” To solve our energy challenge, the president then announced that his administration was releasing a “Blueprint for a Secure Energy Future,” which provides the framework for a comprehensive national energy policy. The new framework includes a number of ideas and programs, from setting a goal to cut our dependence on foreign oil by one third over the next decade, to ensuring America’s homes and offices are more energy efficient. The plan also calls for an enhanced effort to secure domestic supplies of energy — including oil, natural gas, clean coal and nuclear power — as well as the development of alternative sources of energy, such as wind, solar power and biofuels. In the long run, however, the president insisted that the best way for the United States to secure its energy future would be for the country to tap into its most valuable commodity: American ingenuity.

The notion that the United States can use its scientific, intellectual and entrepreneurial power to solve its most complex and pressing problems is not a new one. But to a large extent, President Obama’s call for the research and development of new sources of energy relies on the encouragement of the private sector to do so through the establishment of a Clean Energy Standard. He does observe that government funding in R&D will be critical to this effort and notes with pride the investments his administration has already made in renewable energy research under funds provided by the 2009 stimulus act. But his calls for additional federal support of this effort — characterized as one of his “budget priorities” in an age of fiscal austerity — may lack the dynamism and inspiration needed to get the American people behind it.

It is true that the Americans are remarkably ingenious. But it is also true that some of our most important technical and scientific advancements have come about not through the profit-seeking initiative of the private sector, but rather through the marshaling of intellectual, scientific and financial resources under the direction of the federal government. One example is the creation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), established by Congress in 1958 under the leadership of President Dwight David Eisenhower. A second, and far more significant example, can be found in the launch of FDR’s Manhattan Project — the wartime effort to develop the atomic bomb.

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The Manhattan Project was inspired to a large extent by a letter that President Roosevelt received in the fall of 1939 from Albert Einstein and a small group of international scientists. The letter took note of the recent discovery of nuclear fission and warned the president of the possibility that this discovery might lead to the creation of extremely powerful weapons. It also alluded to the fact that German scientists were working in this area.

In response to this news, FDR immediately established an Advisory Committee on Uranium, while a similar effort was launched in Great Britain. By 1942, the two efforts had merged into what was called the Manhattan Project. Centered in the United States, it involved scientists working at labs in a number of leading universities in the U.S., Britain and Canada. It also led to the creation of a number of significant federal facilities, such as the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Oak Ridge City, which grew from empty Tennessee farmland to a city and scientific facility of over 75,000 people between 1943 and 1945; the Hanford Engineering Works, located in south-central Washington, which employed over 50,000 workers in the construction of the world’s first full-scale nuclear reactor; and the Los Alamos National Laboratory, which employed over 5,000 scientists and engineers.

Employing more than 130,000 people at a cost of roughly $2 billion in 1940s dollars, the Manhattan Project was one of the largest scientific endeavors ever undertaken. Its successful development of atomic weapons and the US decision to use them will forever remain controversial, but the project also ushered in the nuclear age, which brought us a host of scientific advances above and beyond the development of nuclear energy. These include significant developments in medicine, electronics and nanotechnology, all of which have had an enormous impact on our quality of life and our understandings of the workings of the universe.

Establishing a Clean Energy Standard that will require the private sector to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and our dependence on foreign oil is an important first step in our effort to secure what the president calls our “energy independence.” But if we wish to use our innate ingenuity to truly wean ourselves off our dependence on fossil fuels and the internal combustion engine, then something more than marginal support for basic scientific and technical research will be required. President Obama alluded to this when he said we need “to dream big;” to summon the same spirit of unbridled optimism and bold willingness that allowed “previous generations to rise to greatness — to save democracy, to touch the moon, to connect the world with our own science and imagination.”

As we look to the past for inspiration, it is important to remember that many of the accomplishments the president refers to would not have been achieved without the strong financial support of the federal government. To “dream big” means trying to achieve not the greatest profit, but the greatest good for all Americans. This requires much more than faith in science; it also requires faith in our collective wisdom and the benefits that can accrue from a government that is truly dedicated to the common good of all.

David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute.

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