Briefing Book

The Great Innovation Debate

Proposed Energy cuts are so severe that they’ll force a debate about whether we should support innovation in the first place. It’s a debate we should relish.

By Jeff Navin

Tagged budgetDepartment of Energyinnovationoffice of management and budgetTrump Administration

Wednesday morning, Axios reported topline numbers for the Trump Administration’s FY18 Department of Energy (DOE) budget request for renewable energy, fossil energy, nuclear energy and efficiency. We knew from the earlier “skinny budget” release that the cuts would be deep, but this news confirms that the request is an attempt to fundamentally reshape the federal government’s approach to innovation. The cuts are massive: a 79 percent cut to energy efficiency programs, 70 percent cut to renewable energy, 70 percent to transportation programs, a 54 percent cut to fossil, and a 31 percent cut for nuclear. From what was released in the skinny budget, we know there will be deep cuts to the Office of Science budget, and elimination of both ARPA-E and the Loan Programs Office.

This is not, as it will be framed, an effort to reduce the deficit. The Administration is clear that priorities like tax cuts do not need to be paid for, and we’re told that a $1 trillion infrastructure plan will be announced in the coming weeks.

This is about an ideological view, pushed by a few think tanks, that the government should not be involved in innovation, and an even more extreme version of that view that says the government should step away from funding even basic science and early stage R&D.

The damage this budget request, if enacted, would cause would be severe. We need continued innovation and deployment of renewables, transportation, efficiency, nuclear, and carbon capture to give us the best chance of meeting our mid-century carbon reduction goals. Several national laboratories would have to shut down major programs, if not close completely, if this budget is enacted. Thousands of scientists who have been working on behalf of the taxpayers would be fired. Multi-year projects would stop before completion. It would take years, if not decades, to rebuild these programs, and it would cost billions to get back to where we are today.

This isn’t a surprise to those pushing for these cuts. It’s the point. Their intention is to cause deep and lasting damage to America’s innovation ecosystem. They want it to be difficult, if not impossible, to rebuild. They also sense the opportunity: They have one of their own in the Office of Management and Budget, and OMB produced this budget before any political appointees, save for Secretary Perry, had even been formally nominated to serve at DOE.

But because these cuts are so deep, this proposal is calling the question on whether the United States should support innovation in basic science and in energy. That’s a different conversation than a typical budget debate. In the past, we’ve seen various technologies competing against one another for larger slices of an R&D pie that was already too small. This year, because of this proposal, we will see a broad set of interests—science, renewables, efficiency, fossil, nuclear, and transportation—work together to defend America’s innovation system, and fight together to defend the very idea that America should even invest in innovation.

That effort will find sympathetic ears in Congress. There is not widespread political support for this current ideological proposal, and cuts at this level would threaten the viability of programs at national laboratories represented by key Republicans in the Congress. These include the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Senator Cory Gardner’s Colorado, the Savannah River National Laboratory in Lindsey Graham’s South Carolina, and perhaps most importantly, Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, home of Senator Lamar Alexander, Chair of the Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee. On the House side, the Chairman of the Energy and Water Subcommittee is Congressman Mike Simpson, whose district contains all 900 square miles of Idaho National Laboratory. Republican Rep. Chuck Fleischman, who represents Oak Ridge National Laboratory, is on the Energy and Water Subcommittee, as is Republican Rep. Dan Newhouse, who represents Richland, Washington, home of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. To be sure, there is broad support for investment in innovation among Democrats.

Next week, when the budget is officially released, there will likely be corks popping at the Heritage Foundation’s headquarters. Getting OMB on board with their ideological agenda was a win for Heritage. But as any appropriator will remind you, Congress has the power of the purse. It has no problem ignoring budget requests from the executive branch, especially when those proposals hit their home states hard. That’s even more true when the Administration making the request is weakened or distracted, and when those opposed to the request are unified and galvanized.

This budget request is beyond bad, but the silver lining may be that we’re about to have a broader debate on the role of government in energy innovation. It’s a debate we are well positioned to win. But as we know all too well, victory won’t happen unless we engage, relentlessly, in that fight.

Read more about budgetDepartment of Energyinnovationoffice of management and budgetTrump Administration

Jeff Navin served as the Acting Chief of Staff and Deputy Chief of Staff at the United States Department of Energy. 

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