Alexander: Energy Research Deserves the Same Attention From Congress as Medical Research

Posted on June 20, 2017

WASHINGTON, June 20 – Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said today at an event hosted by the Bipartisan Policy Center’s American Energy Innovation Council that last year Congress passed the 21st Century Cures Act to unleash medical innovation, and “energy research deserves the same attention and has the same bipartisan potential.”

“The 21st Century Cures Act is an important example of bipartisan action spurred in part by recommendations from outside organizations like the Bipartisan Policy Center, and despite the divisiveness of the presidential election, Congress was able to come together and pass legislation that will help virtually every American family,” said Alexander. “But medical research is not the whole story. Energy research deserves the same attention. And support for energy research has the same bipartisan potential.”

 Alexander continued: “We usually think of energy research when we think of clean air or climate change, but it’s much more fundamental than that. Virtually every American family would also benefit from cheaper and more reliable energy. I think the best way to lower the cost of energy, clean the air, improve health, increase family incomes, and produce good-paying jobs is to double funding for basic energy research and drive American innovation.

He added, “We are heading in the right direction on federally sponsored energy research. Through the Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, which I chair, we have increased investment in both basic energy research and high-potential, high-impact energy technologies at ARPA-E. Congress has the opportunity to work together, on a bipartisan basis, to find energy innovation solutions that will help American families.”

Alexander is chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, which oversees the Department of Energy. 

A video of Alexander’s remarks is available here.

Alexander’s full prepared remarks are below:

Thank you Jason for the introduction, thank you to the Bipartisan Policy Center for organizing this event and for all of the work that you do and for all of your help on 21st Century Cures, and thank you to the panel for your participation today.

Before we talk about we need to do, let’s talk about what we’ve already done.

A year ago, at a Bipartisan Policy Center event, I stood with former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, former Tennessee Congressman Bart Gordon, and Nashville resident Doug Oliver – who was blind for a decade but regained his sight and driver’s license in 2015 after participating in a clinical trial in Florida – and called for passage of 21st Century Cures to unleash medical innovation and give Americans better access to life-changing treatments and life-saving cures.

In December, Congress passed and the President Obama signed the 21st Century Cures Act, which Senate Majority Leader McConnell called “the most important legislation of the year.”

21st Century Cures is an important example of bipartisan action spurred in part by recommendations from outside organizations like the Bipartisan Policy Center. Despite the divisiveness of the presidential election, Congress was able to come together and pass legislation that will help virtually every American family.

In May, Congress helped deliver on the promise of 21st Century Cures by providing a $2 billion increase in funding for medical research for the second consecutive year.

But medical research is not the whole story. Energy research deserves the same attention.  And support for energy research has the same bipartisan potential.

We usually think of energy research when we think of clean air or climate change, but it’s much more fundamental than that.

Virtually every American family would benefit from cheaper and more reliable energy. And I think the best way to lower the cost of energy, clean the air, improve health, increase family incomes, and produce good-paying jobs is to double funding for basic energy research and drive American innovation.

A decade ago, the National Academies issued a report called ‘‘Rising Above the Gathering Storm.” The Committee considered focusing their report only on energy research due to the impact on economic growth and American competitiveness.

The report’s main recommendation was, and still is, very simple: help America keep its brainpower advantage so we can keep our jobs from going overseas to China, India, and other countries by increasing funding for research.

And some of the important specific recommendations, including the creation of ARPA-E, were energy related.

In response to the report’s recommendations, Congress passed America COMPETES to help the United States maintain our brainpower advantage.

It was an extraordinary bipartisan effort that was introduced by the majority and minority leader.

And when Congress changed hands, they still introduced the legislation.

And three years later, in 2010, the Senate passed the America COMPETES reauthorization unanimously.

Today, it’s been seven years since Congress has taken comprehensive action on energy innovation.

And that’s why I am pleased to be here today with all of you to hear from the American Energy Innovation Council on how the federal government can build on COMPETES and continue to spur innovation in the energy sector.

The United States does many things well, but one thing we do better than any other country in the world is innovation through research.

The U.S. continues to produce 20% of the wealth in the world with only 4% of the world population.

But, we are in danger of losing our competitive advantage in innovation.

As the American Energy Innovation Council’s Power of Innovation report states, the U.S. may fall behind China in total research and development spending by the mid-2020s.

Today, according the International Energy Agency, the U.S. already falls behind eleven other countries in energy research spending as a percentage of gross domestic product.  

Government-sponsored research is one of the most important investments our country can make to encourage innovation, unleash our free enterprise system to create good-paying jobs, and ensure American competitiveness in a global economy. 

According to the National Academies, “economic studies conducted even before the information-technology revolution have shown that as much as 85% of measured growth in US income per capita was due to technological change.”

And as researchers have told me, it’s hard to think of a major technological advance since World War II that has not involved at least some government-sponsored research.

Let me give you three examples.

First, take for example our latest energy boom: natural gas.  The development of unconventional gas was enabled in part by 3D mapping at Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico and the Department of Energy’s large-scale demonstration project. 

Then the American free enterprise system, and our tradition of private ownership of mineral rights, enabled Americans to capitalize on the basic energy research conducted at our national laoratories.

Second, something you may hear more about later today. In 2016, Southern Company, through a public-private partnership with the Department of Energy, TerraPower, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the Electric Power Research Institute and Vanderbilt University began exploring, developing and demonstrating an advanced concept for nuclear generation known as a molten chloride fast reactor (MCFR).

These new reactors will be safer, produce less waste and operate with higher efficiencies and at a lower cost than the existing reactor fleet.

Today, nuclear energy provides 20% of country’s electricity and 60% of our carbon-free electricity. It is reliable and it is safe. And it must be part of any realistic energy plan for our future. 

But, our next generation of nuclear reactors will likely not be possible without government funded research and support.

Third, a few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to show the new Secretary of Energy, Rick Perry, some of the innovative research that is continuing our nation’s legacy of technological advancement at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

We saw advanced energy and materials research, some of the fastest computers in the world, and the best and most innovative research on advanced manufacturing.

We toured Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Manufacturing Demonstration Facility and saw a collection of 3-D printers that companies from all over the United States come to Oak Ridge and use to develop advanced manufacturing techniques. Those companies then return home to make better products, quicker and cheaper.

They are 3-D printing everything from medical devices to epilepsy drugs, robotic arms to airplane parts, whole cars and buildings. This technology is already used by the automotive and aviation industries and has the potential to do much more.

Government-sponsored 3-D printing research is beginning to transform the manufacturing sector in the same way that government-sponsored research played a large role, along with our free enterprise system, in the development of unconventional natural gas that has transformed the energy sector and will continue to shape America’s energy policy for decades.

Tennesseans know that innovative energy research at Oak Ridge National Laboratory means thousands of high-tech jobs for our state and higher family incomes. But, we know that it also means higher family incomes for all of our country and keeping reliable and abundant electricity at lower rates.

We are heading in the right direction on federally sponsored energy research. Through the Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, which I chair, we have increased investment in both basic energy research and high-potential, high-impact energy technologies at ARPA-E.

Last month, Congress passed the FY17 Omnibus Appropriations Bill that funded the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which supports our country’s National Laboratories, at $5.39 billion, a record funding level in an appropriations bill.  And we funded ARPA-E at $306 million.

This government-sponsored research is spurring investment in the private sector.  For example, to date, 56 ARPA-E project teams have formed new companies and 68 ARPA-E projects teams have partnered with other government agencies for further development.

Additionally, at least 74 ARPA-E project teams have attracted more than $1.8 billion in reported funding from the private sector to bring their technologies to market.

Our new president talks about making America great and I think a central part of making America great is to use the secret weapons of our research universities and national laboratories.

That’s why I’ve supported doubling energy research and I intend to continue to do that.

There is no reason that we cannot afford to double energy research. The federal government today spends about 5 billion dollars on energy research. One way to responsibly and conservatively pay for doubling energy research is to stop spending money on subsidies for mature technologies and spend that money instead on research.

We cannot lose the technological advantages we have gained through our country’s investment in research and development.  Governing is about setting priorities, and the federal debt is not the result of Congress overspending on science and energy research each year.

We have the opportunity to work together, on a bipartisan basis, to find energy innovation solutions that will help American families.

I look forward to working with you and my colleagues in this Congress to continue to support funding for research and development to maintain our brainpower advantage and our country’s competitiveness and to find better ways to spur energy innovation.