Venkatesh Narayanamurti1 2

1, John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States
2, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States

History abounds with examples of the interdependence of science and engineering, especially in energy. The invention by James Watt of the steam engine led to the scientific theory of thermodynamics. The invention of the light bulb by Edison and the work of Tesla and Westinghouse on transformers for long distance electricity transmission led to the emergence of the field of electrical engineering for power generation. Einstein’s seminal scientific work on relativity eventually led to the discovery of nuclear fission and the development of nuclear power. America’s growth as an economic superpower is in many ways connected to its frontier spirit and superior ability to exploit the virtuous cycle of scientific discovery and engineering inventions to meet societal goals. This spirit is still alive and well in some places (e.g. the information technology sector), and yet the level of investment necessary to advance both science and technology in the energy space is prohibitively large for the self-funded “tinkerer.”

The unity of “basic” and “applied” research activities was a major factor in the highly productive corporate R&D activities in the 20thcentury. Examples abound from AT&T Bell Labs, IBM, Xerox, DuPont and General Electric. My own experience at Bell Labs, alongside the history of the invention of the transistor and the discovery of the transistor effect, illustrates the importance of breaking down barriers between science and engineering. In the 1970’s and 1980’s, Bell Labs made enormous strides in artificially-tailored thin-film materials, which led to new scientific discoveries in semiconductor quantum physics. These advances led simultaneously to the creation of devices like high-mobility transistors, which are in every cell phone, and tiny communications lasers, which allow high speed fiber optic communications across the globe.

To enhance the public benefits of DOE’s energy R&D, a closer integration is needed between activities typically managed by the Office of Science and the technology offices. The appointment in 2014 of a single Undersecretary for Science and Energy is a step in the right direction for DOE R&D management; this organizational structure should be maintained. This move enabled the creation of crosscutting initiatives, wherein multi-office teams coordinate funding for a set of specific technical challenges, such as grid modernization. Further steps to improve the structure at the Assistant Secretary level may be needed. One possible improvement is to create a new “Office of Energy Research” that would combine activities across the full spectrum of energy-related research. This office could coordinate initiatives that fill existing departmental functions, including core research programs in science and engineering that span the range from distant commercial relevance (e.g. condensed matter and atomic physics) to a strong technology focus (e.g. energy storage).