The Arizona Desert Lamp

Intellectual modesty in surprising places

Posted in Campus, Politics, Technology by Evan Lisull on 2 June 2009

Nanosolar Film“This is possibly going to be the future.”

-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, discussing solar film.

The UA received a STIM$ 15 million grant to develop this new type of film, which researcher Neal Armstrong (uh…) says should have something “off the shelf at Target” by 2020. This actually raises a curious question – what kind of results are academic grants generally tied to? Were Armstrong et al not to succeed in their project, would they be less likely to receive government grants down the road? If there’s any grant-receiving/grant-seeking students or researchers out there, I’d appreciate the input.

Thankfully, this article was able to discuss a stimulus package initiative without salivating over the “jobs created,” but there’s a reason for this that doesn’t involve sudden media skepticism. From the Energy Department’s fact page [PDF] on the Energy Frontier Research Centers (of which this solar film project is a part):

Thirty EFRCs are being funded at a total annual cost of $100 million under the Fiscal Year (FY) 2009 Federal Budget.  The Recovery Act provided a further $277 million, enabling the Office of Science to establish an additional 16 EFRCs and forward-fund them for the full five-year period.

In total, the EFRC initiative represents a planned DOE commitment of $777 million over five years, with the $400 million in out-year funding for the FY 2009 funded Centers subject to future appropriations.

There are over 110 institutions, from 36 states plus the District of Columbia and 8 foreign countries, participating.

In all, they will involve nearly 700 senior investigators and employ, on a full- or part-time basis, an estimated 1100 researchers, including postdoctoral associates, graduate students, undergraduate students, and technical staff.

Roughly a third of these will be supported by Recovery Act funding.

Quick stimulus calculations on the back of an envelope: 367 jobs courtesy of $277 million results in $754,768 per job. Hey, Dr. Armstrong, you still got any openings?

Of course, this funding isn’t just paying for menial labor, or labor at all – not even His Barackness can make everyone near-millionaires overnight. (Well, he could, but Bubblin’ Ben Bernanke has some limits.) Yet it is important to remember that “creation of jobs” in any context isn’t some sort of miracle reminiscent of an antediluvian God – it’s a natural effect of funding projects, be they solar film or highway construction. The question being asked by skeptics is whether this short-term “shock” is actually going to spark a slowing heart (a fact generally assumed by stimulus proponents), whether the unseen costs are great than those seen, and whether it won’t fry the system in the long-run.

It’s also worth noting that the image featured in this post comes courtesy of Metaefficient, discussing a Silicon Valley startup Nanosolar. This company started working on thin solar technology back in 2006 (with the help of federal grants), and shipped its first commercial panels in December 2007.

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