George Will thinks we should put more money in to plasma-fusion research. He may well be right. Obviously he would be right if for $30 billion we could have cost-competitive fusion power in 20 years. But that confident assessment comes from the head of the Princeton fusion lab; those of us who remember that fusion power was “thirty years away” fifty years ago are more skeptical.
In several ways Will’s column is more intelligent than the policies of the politicians he supports. It recognizes that public goods need public funding. It doesn’t demand – as Republicans going back to Ronald Reagan have demanded – the abolition of the Department of Energy, which pays for fusion research. It mentions global warming as a reason to seek alternatives to burning hydrocarbons.
What it doesn’t do is ask the question of how plasma fusion competes with inertial-confinement fusion as an R&D target, or how either of them competes with other forms of non-fossil energy production (e.g., wind, solar, and geothermal) or with battery technology. And bizzarely, it calls the fusion work “basic research,” thus skipping over the question about how much public funding should go to science, as opposed to technology. If you want to look for ways in which the current generation is cheating the future, the tiny size of the National Science Foundation budget has to be #1.
It’s not hard to understand why the Party of Ignorance isn’t enthusiastic about adding to the store of knowledge, especially since the actual work gets done mostly at universities, by people who vote Democratic. But why it’s puzzling why gradually bringing the NSF budget up to the level of the NIH budget (about a fivefold increase) or even of NASA (roughly a tripling) – hasn’t been a goal of the current administration, of either of its immediate Democratic predecessors, or of Democrats in Congress.
Footnote And no, of course it’s not necessary to cut back on transfer payments to fund R&D. How about a modest carbon tax instead?