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Friday, October 22, 2010

Apollo metaphor: crash and burn

The Merc’s website (but not the dead tree paper) had a story Thursday afternoon about the California branch of the Apollo Alliance, a lobbying effort by “business, labor, community and environmental leaders” for policies to support cleantech companies and cleantech jobs. The story wasn’t picked up by other outlets because there isn’t much new: the Apollo Alliance is based in San Francisco, already had a rollout effort in California in October 2008, and the group issued a press release three weeks ago supporting AB32 and attacking Prop 23.

The Merc story highlighted the support of cleantech businesses, but the website and the group’s publications suggest that the Apollo Alliance is more of a political group run by an alliance of labor and environmentalists. The New Apollo Program manifesto lists a 14-member board chaired by longtime legislator (later state treasurer) Phil Angelides, and the board also includes the head of three environmental groups, two labor unions and noted environmental activists Van Jones and Robert Redford.

While the Alliance seems intended to win clout through its big name backers, it seems an otherwise unremarkable example of the three factions to lobby for government regulation and spending to support cleantech companies and onshore jobs. For example, the Merc story says:
"We've seen energy policies stall at the federal level, and it makes what's happening in California all the more important," said Cathy Calfo, executive director of the Apollo Alliance. "It's important to have a comprehensive strategy to move toward a clean energy future."
However, there is the matter of the name. To the question of “Why do we call it the Apollo Alliance?” the group’s website says:
Like JFK’s Apollo Project, which put a man on the moon in under a decade, an Apollo project for energy freedom must be big, bold and fast. Here’s the speech President Kennedy gave when he announced his Apollo project at Rice University in Houston, September 12, 1962 …
The problem is, renewable energy or energy efficiency are not suited to an Apollo-like project. That’s not my conclusion, but that of three of the world’s leading innovation economists — David Mowery of Berkeley, Dick Nelson of Columbia and Ben Martin of SPRU — in an article they wrote just to rebut such policy silliness, who share the goals of the Apollo Alliance but explicitly reject its policy metaphor (if not its specific policies).

As they begin:
Many supporters of government action argue that the problem is so great, the need for new environmentally friendly technologies so urgent, and the time remaining for implementation of solutions so limited, that a “Manhattan Project” or an “Apollo Program” is needed.
and then note how the two metaphors have been around for more than a decade. From that, they summarize four reasons why the metaphors not only are wrong, but will lead to policies that won’t work
We emphasize at the outset that we share the broad concern of these authors about the immense risks of global climate change, and we agree that strong, well-resourced government technology policy is part of the solution. However, proposals to model such a policy explicitly on the Manhattan or Apollo projects are, as this paper will argue, wrongheaded, and if adopted could waste resources and limit the prospects for success. Although the prospect of global warming raises technical and economic issues that are, if anything, even more daunting than those posed by a lunar landing or the crash wartime program to develop an atomic bomb, the nature of these challenges is quite different. Most importantly, both the Apollo and Manhattan projects were designed, funded, and managed by federal agencies to achieve a specific technological solution for which the government was effectively the sole “customer”.

By contrast, technological solutions to global climate change must be deployed throughout the world by many different actors, and these deployment decisions will require huge outlays of private as well as public funds. Both the industries developing and producing these solutions and the sectors in which the technologies will be deployed comprise a very heterogeneous group, ranging from wind power to internal combustion and from electric-power generation to dairy farming. …

Another point of contrast between the R&D programs that will be needed to combat global warming and these earlier federal “models” is the relatively high degree of administrative centralization in both the Manhattan and Apollo projects. As we note below, the tension between centralization and decentralization in large-scale R&D programs is an important issue in program design for which broad prescriptions are likely to be unrealistic or vacuous. But government R&D programs to combat global warming will involve numerous organizations, and consequently mechanisms for the coordination of priorities, resource allocation, and performance evaluation will be essential.

Lastly, unlike the development of an atom bomb or of a manned space vehicle, halting or reversing global warming almost certainly cannot be achieved solely through ‘supply-side’ policies and the development of technological ‘solutions’. Indeed, one of the largest dangers created by the Manhattan or Apollo metaphor is that it may be adopted by politicians seeking to avoid the far more painful demand-side policies aimed at changing human behavior and halting the ever growing demand for energy previously regarded as a prerequisite of ‘human progress’.
I can’t possibly summarize a 14,000 word research article in a brief blog post, and I encourage people to read the article in its original — either the official version at the Research Policy or the working paper published by Britain’s equivalent of NSF.

However, this is yet another reminder (as if we needed another one) that innovation policy is too important to be left to politicians or lobbyists, but instead needs to be handled by people who know something about the subject.

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