Bill Gates wants a miracle. And he’s willing to put his prestige and a lot of money — as much as $2 billion — behind that pursuit. He has called for a major U.S. and global effort to stimulate research in the hope of finding a “miracle” in the science and technologies of energy production.
Why “miracle”? The motivation for Gates’s campaign is his conviction that a global energy transformation of an enormous size and scope is needed to address the prospect of climate change. Hydrocarbons — oil, natural gas, and coal — currently supply close to 85 percent of global energy, and mainstream forecasts see world energy use nearly doubling, not shrinking, in the coming decades. Even many forecasts rooted in bullish expectations for growth in alternative energies concede that hydrocarbon use will still grow rather than shrink. No existing technologies can move us away from hydrocarbons on a global scale; there are no quick, easy solutions.
By “miracle,” Gates means something that seems impossible given our current technological and scientific vantage. “I’ve seen miracles happen before,” Gates says. “The personal computer. The Internet. The polio vaccine.” Indeed, the marvels that technology has enabled and the wonders that science has explained throughout modern history, and especially over the past century, spur confidence that comparable miracles remain undiscovered and uninvented. According to Gates, such miracles are the “result of research and development and the human capacity to innovate,” rather than “chance.” This is inherently a “very uncertain process,” Gates maintains, for which there is no “predictor function.” To help the process along, Gates has not only launched a persuasion campaign but also created the Breakthrough Energy Coalition, a group of wealthy individuals coordinating their investments and philanthropic giving to develop energy alternatives to hydrocarbons. In addition, he has recommended that government spending on energy research and development (R&D) be doubled or even tripled. And how should that government R&D money be spent? Rather than accelerating or seeking to scale up yesterday’s inventions, Gates says he’d “spend it all on fundamental research.”
Without regard to the climate change debate, and long before any miracles happen, though, Gates will have made a vital contribution to the public discourse by raising broader questions about science and technology. His call for miracles gives us an opportunity to think afresh and more broadly about the role that fundamental, curiosity-driven science plays in technological innovation. As we shall see, public discussions of these questions are plagued with confusion and fallacies — and even the very way we talk about these matters, using terms like “basic research” and “development,” is woefully in need of change.
Mark P. Mills is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a faculty fellow at Northwestern University’s McCormick School of Engineering. In 2016, he was named “Energy Writer of the Year” by the American Energy Society. Follow him on Twitter here.