Kishore Mahbubani, the dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, is over for tea and I am telling him about what I consider to be the most exciting, moon-shot-quality, high-aspiration initiative proposed by President Obama that no one has heard of. It’s a plan to set up eight innovation hubs to solve the eight biggest energy problems in the world. But I explain that the program has not been fully funded yet because Congress, concerned about every dime we spend these days, is reluctant to appropriate the full $25 million for each center, let alone for all eight at once, so only three are moving ahead. But Kishore interrupts me midsentence.
“You mean billion,” he asks? “No,” I say. “We’re talking about $25 million.” “Billion,” he repeats. “No. Million,” I insist.
The Singaporean is aghast. He simply can’t believe that at a time when his little city-state has invested more than a billion dollars to make Singapore a biomedical science hub and attract the world’s best talent, America is debating about spending mere millions on game-changing energy research.
Welcome to Tea Party America. Think small and carry a big ego.
This may seem like a little issue, but it is not. Nations thrive or languish usually not because of one big bad decision, but because of thousands of small bad ones — decisions where priorities get lost and resources misallocated so that the nation’s full potential can’t be nurtured and it ends up being less than the sum of its parts. That is my worry for America.
But none of this is inevitable. So let’s start with the good news: a shout-out for Obama’s energy, science and technology team for thinking big. Soon after taking office, they proposed what Energy Secretary Steven Chu calls “a series of mini-Manhattan projects.” In the fiscal year 2010 budget, the Department of Energy requested financing for “Energy Innovation Hubs” in eight areas: smart grid, solar electricity, carbon capture and storage, extreme materials, batteries and energy storage, energy efficient buildings, nuclear energy, and fuels from sunlight.