COMPETES reauthorization necessary for progress

Posted July 07, 2010, at 5:36 p.m.

Even in tough economic times, we must invest in the future. This is the message of the COMPETES Act reauthorization that will be considered by the Senate Commerce Committee in mid-July and by the full Senate in the following weeks.

This bill continues a process, started in 2007, of systematically increasing the budget of three federal agencies that are the cornerstone of U.S. efforts to develop basic scientific knowledge that is needed to launch the companies and jobs that will sustain our future.

The biggest drain in our national balance of trade since the 1970s has been imported oil. Year after year, we import huge quantities of oil, often from countries that do not have our best interests at heart. In exchange, we are giving them billions of dollars that we need at home to improve our quality of life. We have also learned that our reliance on these fossil fuels is causing our planet to warm in a way that, if not stopped, will diminish that quality of life.

Ironically, as a nation, we are simultaneously energy rich and energy poor. Far more energy than we will ever need reaches our country every day in the form of sunlight. Our state’s biomass could eventually replace a significant portion of our imported petroleum. The energy in the wind that almost continuously blows off our coast is estimated to be equal to the output of 40 nuclear plants.

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Yet we do not have the knowledge of how to harvest this abundance. At the University of Maine and elsewhere around the country, we are working hard on renewable energy technologies, but we have a long way to go. We need to accelerate these research and development efforts now.

Unfortunately, traditional big energy companies have been very good at producing vast amounts of carbon-based fuels around the world, but less aggressive about funding research into alternative sources of energy. Compared to high tech electronics or biotech companies that spend 10 to 25 percent of revenues on research, big oil spends less than 1 percent. Smaller high tech energy companies are now forming, but they do not have the resources to fund this research.

Only the Department of Energy (DOE) can fill our research funding gap in the near future. The COMPETES Act and the Recovery Act have temporarily ratcheted up DOE research spending in Maine and elsewhere, but these programs will run out soon. The COMPETES Act runs out in three months with the Recovery Act closely following. The COMPETES reauthorization is crucial if we are not to fall behind.

The U.S., of course, is not unique in seeing these opportunities. Germany and China are dramatically increasing their efforts to solve their own problems and establish themselves in these emerging markets. Therefore, stepping up is also essential to U.S. competitiveness.

Energy is just one of three agencies getting a boost under the COMPETES reauthorization. The National Science Foundation, which is a crucial funding source for Maine’s research universities, would also continue on a doubling path. So would the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which both is crucial to devel-oping technical standards that underpin our economy and has agreed to build a research building at the University of Maine. The bill also would provide experiments and programs across the country to improve math and science education.

The Maine delegation is enlightened in this area. We have never had a Maine senator or member of Congress vote against COMPETES or its reauthorization. Let’s hope this tradition continues and that enough of the rest of their country follows their lead so that the COMPETES reauthorization will become law in the near future.

Robert A. Kennedy is president of the University of Maine.

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