Bill threatens to de-fund public energy research in Minnesota

In times of tight government budgets, there's a temptation to lawmakers to leave the expensive job of scientific research to corporations. I understand that urge. I can sympathize with it. But I also think that it's perilously wrong-headed.

Privately-funded science—that is, usually, science done by corporations—is important. And it can't all be written off as inherently biased, either. The trouble, though, is that corporations have special concerns that influence what scientific research they undertake, and how they do it. In general, today, what they focus on is short-term stuff. They improve existing products. They figure out how to make nifty technology work in the real world.

What they don't do is long-term, big-picture science. This is the stuff that shapes our futures—and the futures of private corporations. If we abandon public funding for science, then we put all of that at risk.

Case in point: Since 2003, Minnesota has funded research on energy through the University of Minnesota's Initiative for Renewable Energy & the Environment (IREE). The scientists involved with this program do low-profile, but extremely important work, developing technologies (and methods for using those technologies) that affect every level of our energy systems. Right now, they're involved in everything from developing portable systems that turn farm waste into biofuel, to figuring out better ways to help houses use less energy. They're even collecting the complicated economic and physics data that will help us better understand the full environmental impacts of different fuels, batteries, and other energy sources and technologies. In the course of writing Before the Lights Go Out, my new book about the future of energy, I interviewed several of these scientists and learned a lot about the research they do. Some of their ideas won't pan out. Others will shape our energy future. But you don't know which is which until you put in the research effort—and this isn't the kind of research that private companies are willing to do.

Tomorrow, Minnesota state legislators in the Senate Energy, Utilities and Telecommunications Committee will vote on a bill called SF 2181. If it passes, the bill will de-fund the Initiative for Renewable Energy & the Environment. Instead, all state money for energy research will go to Xcel Energy, our local electric utility.

There's nothing wrong with Xcel. In fact, they've got a pretty good track record of investing in alternative energy generation and infrastructure changes that will make it easier to build a sustainable energy future. But they aren't going to do the kind of research that IREE does. And they aren't going to research energy issues that don't affect their business—electricity.

Our energy problems are bigger than that. Our research into potential solutions needs to be broader than Xcel should be expected to cover. And it needs to be more forward thinking, and financially risky, than Xcel can reasonably be expected to undertake. There's nothing wrong with funding research at Xcel. But there is something wrong with de-funding research at the University of Minnesota.

If you live in Minnesota, I urge you to contact the members of the Minnesota Senate Energy, Utilities and Telecommunications Committee TODAY. The vote is tomorrow, Thursday March 8. Let them know that public science is important work that can't be replaced by private science. In fact, we need both kinds of science happening, if we're going to meet the challenges of the future. A list of committee members—and their phone numbers—is after the jump.

Senator Julie Rosen, Chair, 651.296.5713
Senator Mike Jungbauer, Vice Chair, 651.296.3733
Senator Doug Magnus, 651.296.5650
Senator David Brown, 651.296.8075
Senator Dan Sparks, 651.296.9248
Senator Scott Dibble, 651.296.4191
Senator Mary Jo McGuire, 651.296.5537
Senator Jim Metzen, 651.296.4370
Senator Michelle Benson, 651.296.3219
Senator John Howe, 651.296.4264
Senator Ray Vandeveer, 651.296.4351
Senator Jeff Hayden, 651.296.4261
Senator Amy Koch, 651.296.5981

Image: Geothermal energy research at Argonne National Laboratory, another important publicly funded research center, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from argonne's photostream


  1. Completely agree.  Basic science needs to be publicly funded.  Companies that want to build things and make a profit (Tesla Motors, GE, Exxon) need to seek their funding in the private sector.

  2. Actually, I think there is something wrong with funding  research at Xcel. This looks like a naked example of crony capitalism, transferring funds from the public to a private company for the benefit of that private company (No mention is made of making the results of this research open to the public, is there?). This doesn’t just harm science, it harms all the taxpayers of Minnesota, and any companies competing with the one favoured by the legislature.

  3. “In times of tight government budgets”.  You’re off-base from the first sentence.  Gov’t budgets aren’t tight, they’re the farthest from it.  They’re bloated and floppy.  When you spend trillions on SocSec/Medicare/Medicaid/Wars, then yup, you’ll run out.  Why would one assume that because a budget is enormously huge, it can and should be huger?

    1. The question is about whether or not governments should defund science. You seem to be trying to pick a different argument.

      If you’re trying to say that governments should spend less on some other things, like war, instead of defunding science, then you’d probably be in agreement with everyone else.

  4. I’d say it was Neandertal thinking but those poor guys take all the hits. Read our fellow Minnesotan Shawn Otto’s Fool Me Twice to understand just how and why we’ve become a nation that turned our backs on reason and science and seem to be rushing headlong back to the dark ages.

  5. Hmmm, six comments here, 37 on the new iPad.

    Best of luck Maggie… if I was within driving distance of Minnearctica I’d man the picket lines with you.

    1.  I get the same impression, Ito.  I guess our magically delicious technology has become the new coliseum that helps keep the focus off the issues that need sorting out.  Of course, energy research in the Great White North, much like many of the copyright posts on BB, are tangled, difficult concepts to think through and solve (if I can use that word).  I hope Maggie’s call to action reaches many local ears!

  6. I say we find this ‘Bill’ and teach him a lesson!  One guy shouldn’t have that much power

  7. I was a postdoc at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (a DOE lab) in Colorado.  Xcel funded my main research project which was pretty basic science and low payoff for them.  I was impressed until I was told by my coworkers that Xcel was funding the project as part of a court order.  They were caught dumping toxic waste and besides some fines the judge ordered them to fund renewable energy research.  I just searched Google for the court case and settlement but haven’t come across anything that looks right.  I’ll post it here if I can find it.

  8. Historians will point at nonsense like this being the sort of thing that caused the US to stop being the worldwide leader in technology and when it’s superpower began to fade.

  9. Here is the text of the bill:

    I don’t see anything explicit about funding Exel research or de-funding IREE though.  How does it work?

    1. Upon closer reading, it looks like §§1(f) (“The account shall be managed by the public utility…”) transfers responsibility to Xcel.  Xcel would not decide projects, it would decide (with certain specified advisement) which projects to refer to the Public Utilities Commission for final approval.

  10. The University of Minnesota is government funded. The U of MN is primarily a research institution that grudgingly teaches students as a condition of its state funding.

    Nothing would make me happier than to see the U of MN stop chasing research dollars and go back to its original mission: Teaching students.

    De-funding a single project does not mean the complete elimination of government funding.

    1. In research institutions, graduate students, postdocs and advanced undergrads learn to do science by actually doing science.  This is how this country makes scientists.  You can’t make research scientists without research.  It’s not a single project that’s being subsumed by a corporation, it’s a cluster of important projects that may have important ramifications for the entire energy grid of the planet.  There’s no good reason to make a present of that to one company.

    2. Really? Because, if I were an undergraduate in the sciences, I would want to be taught by professors who were familiar with doing the job of being scientists. 

      One of the things you learn in journalism school: Learning your profession from teachers who haven’t actually practiced the profession in decades is not always the best way to prepare people for future careers. 

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