Climate change R&D: engineering promise or peril?

(An edited version of this commentary originally appeared in EETimes , April 30, 2007)

Don't worry, this is not another commentary about climate change and the possibility of global warming, although I do know that simulations can be very sensitive to assumptions in their underlying models and errors in the input data. (As physics Nobel laureate Niels Bohr said, “Prediction is very difficult, especially if it's about the future”)

My concern is about the research and development structure that will arise, as society (whether rightly or misguided) attempts to reduce the possibility of global warning through new and improved energy sources, greater efficiency, and developing more “green” technologies. Have no doubt, there will be lots of money flowing into this effort, and that's generally a good thing for engineers.

Some of this money will go towards smaller-scale R&D, but a lot will go to larger, and even immense, projects. Some of the funding will be private, some will be from foundations, and some come from government programs.

When this much money flows into a program or mission, it reinforces the misconception that engineering progress can, in effect, be bought on demand. Sometimes, that's true. Examples include the WWII Manhattan project for the atom bomb, the 1960s moon-landing effort, and even our own industry pouring billions into making the road map and “Moore's Law” happen. Put money in, make those engineers work hard, and poof: you'll get the advances you wanted.

This makes innovation look simple, since you get a result correlated with your input investment. Sometimes, you're really lucky, and you get a true nonlinearity or inflection point with an unanticipated breakthrough that changes everything.

Yet the history of science and engineering R&D also shows us that it's often the least-funded efforts that make the real progress and dramatic breakthroughs, while the best-funded ones may stall or go down dead-end paths. That's OK, since engineers and scientists often remind everyone that this is part of the learning process.

But those who are investing large amounts of money may not see it that way. They will expect progress, and in the direction they were anticipating. If the big grants and massive public funds doesn't yield results in the expected time frame, there will be hearings and press reports of money wasted and misspent pursuing these dead ends.

We know that hindsight is the basis of analysis of what should or shouldn't have been done. The engineering maxim that “you can have it quick, cheap, or right, pick two of those three” will be ignored in the finger-pointing.

On the other hand, if things do go well, it will reinforce society's mindset which began in the early 1900s, and which says that engineering progress is merely a matter of putting in money, turning the crank, having engineers do their work, to get your desired advances.

Engineers have not been blameless; too often, we promise well-defined progress and milestones going into unknown territory. The result has been detrimental to science and engineering fields laced with uncertainties, unknowns, and even outright failure, despite so much progress.

Perhaps I'm too cynical. While the outcome of vast investment is good in many ways, it may further contribute to the diminishment of engineering's status among the broader society. Remember, among the laws that govern engineering is the law of unintended consequences.

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