Learning from Crisis: Considering the Interconnection of Science, Technology, Politics, Energy, and Environment

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Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Dear MRI Community,

This is the sixth in the series of letters that are intended to stimulate thoughts for materials researchers to consider emerging trends and opportunities within, and the other side of, the COVID crisis. Here I will discuss the interplay of science, technology, politics, energy, and environment, a dangerous mine field in so many ways. After all, these are all complex topics and often drive polarizing and passionate viewpoints. These fields are all interconnected and impact us all. The present crisis is a major perturbation to all these domains, and we must carefully consider what trends and implications there will be that a materials researcher will have to adapt to in the near future. We can be absolutely assured that there will be major changes regarding transforming the status quo we enjoyed over the last decades.

Throughout the history of civilizations, science, politics, and economic and military power have simultaneously coexisted in symbiotic and contentious forms. The ancient Mediterranean societies of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, and Rome not only embraced the philosophical pursuits of knowledge but also its translation, which impacted and benefited the lives of their citizens in the form of medicine, agriculture, infrastructure, commerce, mining, and military strength. The technologies, the methods of governance, and the geographic regions of influence have all changed, but the basic benefits of science and technology remain. So, in the modern era, politicians and policy makers of both major parties understand that for a world-leading USA, there has to be a continued investment of a portion of the country’s GDP into science. Having said that, there are always political considerations directing funding to preferred areas across the agencies. Now, as we consider the impact of the Crisis, investments will be weighed against the increase in debt and reduced tax base. As a result, there are also major stresses on science budgets.

The scientific process, with all its methodologies, processing of data, and testing of hypotheses, drives a relentless search for truth. This is often a major problem with extreme authoritarian viewpoints in politics and religion. This goes back to the father of the modern era of scientific philosophy, Galileo Galilei. His determinations from astronomical measurements and mathematical calculations led him to reconsider the role of Earth in the solar system, considered an act of heresy. Later, Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection inflamed the Church, but also encouraged misuse with broad socio-political effects. Climate science and medicine have also been political targets recently. I fear history will judge our society as being unable to filter out the vast noise and disinformation of the Internet and all-day cable news to the detriment of scientific understanding and rational planning. Confusion regarding, for example, the importance of vaccination for communicable diseases and the looming threat of climate change drove doubt at critical times. Additionally, we are all stunned by the lack of scientific knowledge of different leaders both across the country and around the world. Their varied abilities to understand the dynamics of the pandemic, medical treatments, and processes are disheartening and may reflect our own failure to communicate science. We must communicate the scientific method much better with the general public. This is probably best done through outreach to K-12, making sure we communicate across all socio-economic classes and extend opportunities equitably beyond high school education.

My hope in watching the daily COVID briefings is for an educational and informative demonstration of complex facts. When I saw Drs. Fauci and Birx talk with the massive audience using models, logarithmic trends, and rational assumptions, I hoped it would excite curious children towards the opportunities and importance of STEM fields in the same way as my generation was transfixed by America going to the moon. Scientific and technological leadership from the U.S. was cemented by going to the moon over 50 years ago, and that was with calculations from slide rules (current students, check Wikipedia!)

Regarding energy and the environment, those too are caught up in the present crisis. The U.S. was emerging as a major producer and even exporter of energy in terms of extracting and processing shale gas and oil reserves. Innovations in hydraulic fracturing and long-range horizontal drilling aided in lowering costs and improving international competitiveness. Several previous major geopolitical factors conspired towards these energy innovations. These included our overreliance on Middle Eastern oil supplies, two painful Gulf wars, and the limiting of nuclear power due to public concerns over Three-Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima.

Shale companies have done an excellent job in driving costs down, expanding the employment base, and creating a supply chain with local supporting manufacturing. Of course, there have also been serious environmental concerns, but R&D has enabled improvements in extraction monitoring and refining practices, helping to balance energy and environmental policy. In contrast to coal and even oil, shale gas has been shown through life cycle analyses to have environmental advantages. There is still more to be done here, and the debate will continue, but the mixed energy portfolio that the U.S. deployed over the last 20 years or so was a major game changer. Then, like a tsunami, we were hit with the COVID pandemic and its economic consequences.  Even before that hit, there was another issue developing in the form of a trade war on oil and gas between OPEC and Russia. With the overproduction of oil, the world saw plummeting oil prices. With the pandemic lockdown, over supply and lack of demand completely decimated the market, at least in the short term.

The timing of these coupled crises will stress the shale oil and gas companies around the world for the next two years. Those companies holding large debt will be vulnerable to bankruptcy, mergers and employees will face job losses. Most of the energy policy, financial strategies, and investments were centered around $50-$60/barrel or better global market price. U.S. costs on extraction for both gas and oil are competitive with most countries, apart from OPEC producers, and we have commercial advantages relative to emerging gas mining in South America, Europe, and Northern Asia. Government stimulus will be important to aid these companies if we want to maintain our advantage. Another strategy that was emerging in the U.S. around shale gas and oil was developing of an ecosystem around shale extraction to boost economic value and to redistribute the chemical industry and materials manufacturing. States such as Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio were building infrastructure towards this end.  Such facilities include the Shell cracking plant in Western PA, which produces building block small molecules such as ammonia and ethylene. These are then used to drive multi-billion-dollar chemical industries, such as polymers, including low-and high-density polyethylene, fertilizer, caustic soda, soda ash, industrial gases, and many other products. Of course, there are also many environmental arguments regarding relaxing EPA policies around these industrial processes and the impact of emissions, water quality, and even downstream aspects of microplastics entering the global food supply. So again, we need research in environmental monitoring, reuse, and recycling of polymer products, with lower energy synthesis and more effective catalysis for the entire chemical process. The investments and partnerships have all been made to make a better world, and so it is our duty as scientists to dig into ways to enable better sustainable synthetic chemistries and better manufacturing of all these products.

It is most informative to see the industrial sectors that have benefited from COVID stimulus packages around the world. Many countries, irrespective of their majority party’s political leaning, respected their commitments and promises to the Paris Accord Treaty or COP21, and increased their investment stimulus in sustainable energy platforms. We cannot ignore the elephant in the room, this being unprecedented temperature rises, record levels and rates of increase in CO2, record temperatures locally year after year, record extreme weather issues, melting ice caps in both poles, etc. Government policy makers considering a future return on investment with new industries, while not losing any further valuable time to limit temperature rise to 2oC by 2050, have used stimulus funding to deal with future issues around climate, industrial opportunities, and the present crisis. After all, the temperature rise of the planet is the most important curve to flatten, as the earth’s inertia is much harder to address than flattening the COVID-19 spread. I think we all know that cleaning up pollution, which has led to improved health and the return of animal life to forests and streams, is its own reward, but not slowing temperature rise to limit climate change is a disaster. There is common concern about climate issues across many countries within younger generations and religious groups across all the political parties.

There are silver linings in all these storm clouds of crisis. There will be opportunities in research for helping solve these issues. In the case of manufacturing, we must embrace technologies that are faster and use lower energy, and therefore lower costs and all around competitive advantage. This will be a natural benefit to impact society, irrespective of politics, and would appeal equally to all. Materials opportunities will come, so prepare, and your innovations can help the COVID recovery, aid the rebuilding of the economy, and aid the environment. We must innovate now, and in a way to make our grandchildren proud.

I leave you with a quote and a vision from a leader who inspired a generation with science, technology, and lasting pride:

“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade, and do the other things, not because they are easy but because they are hard. Because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills. Because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win, and the others too.” 
– President John F. Kennedy, Rice University, September 1962

Keep well and be patient as we try to save lives and carefully strategize a gradual return to laboratory and field research.

Yours Sincerely,

Clive Randall
Director, Materials Research Institute