Saturday, December 13, 2008

Manhattan and Apollo project metaphors

Relatively regularly these days there are calls for a Manhattan or Apollo style project to address our energy challenges. While this may sound good, it's worth considering what such a project would actually mean. I found this article (pdf) to be helpful. For the Manhattan project, peak annual funding reached about 1% of total federal outlays and 0.4% of GDP. For Apollo, the peak annual numbers were 2.2% of the federal budget and also 0.4% of GDP. What would that mean in today's numbers? Well, the federal budget is on the order of $3T, and the GDP is around $14T. If we use the GDP numbers, such a commitment of resources would be $56B. That's approximately the combined budgets of DOE, NIH, and NSF. Bear in mind that when we did Apollo, it's not like all other efforts stopped, so really pulling something like this off would require a significant allotment of money.

It's worth pointing out that the government has given three times this amount to AIG alone. It's also worth mentioning that communications technologies are vastly superior to those of the past. Presumably large collaborations can be managed more easily and would eliminate the need to uproot the top researchers in the world from their homes and relocate them in a single central location.

Anyway, those are at least some real numbers, and they're not crazy or unattainable given a strong lead in national priorities from the top. The real challenge is figuring out what the true goal is. It's fine to say "energy independence" or some target number for renewables, but the global energy challenge is a lot more diffuse and multidimensional than either putting people on the moon or developing the atomic bomb.


Anonymous said...

Perhaps we need a new Manhattan project dedicated to the development of new giant-project metaphors. We could use this as an excuse to uproot linguists from universities across the country and transport them all to a secret location.

Adam said...

I think many commentators (incl you) have noted the destructive effects of varying funding. Until there is a will unshakable enough to foot the bill year after year, all this idle talk of big projects is kind of useless.

Is there a study about how the NIH (I think?) doubled their budget over the course of 4-8 years or so? Where did the growth occur? Would the American people be happy if the spigot was turned on too quickly and many of the jobs were incompetently filled or visa workers?

Where is America's new productivity coming from these days? Will we be able to dodge Japan's economic flu as a matter of course, or will it take special effort? ...

Anonymous said...

There is important difference though. The projects were military (compete with Evil) or half-military (compete with Evil +involve existing industry+ got jobs in the US) Now, are you sure USA really cares about jobs in China and S-E Asia? Seems like alternative-fuel technology would be finally produced much closer to the new Evil power, whatever they will be. Outsourcing is incompatible with national security, at least.

Douglas Natelson said...

Anon. - I'm not sure I get your point. I think that we want to solve certain key problems because they're serious long-term problems, not because we want to get solutions before other countries do. In that sense, you're right that the energy problem is very different than either the bomb or the space race.

Anonymous said...

Doug, they're serious long-term problems, not because we want to get solutions before other countries do There are two sides: 1) US Govt. would seriously mind that point of view. Because the one who gets clean and cheap energy first is more or less a dominating country. 2) Scientists would probably agree, but they have no money.

Difference with A-bomb and Apollo situations is that there were a lot of talented scientists (many immigrants), who would agree with US Govt. And the state of things where 1) and 2) are supported by opposing groups does not depend on who is currently in the White House. IMHO

Anonymous said...

The comments about varying funding are apt. We can't affford to have an energy program that waxes and wanes with the political winds.

The Manhattan and Apollo projects are good analogies in that the goal was established and no expense was spared to achieve that goal.

Our solution is to start a citizen movement War for Endependence = energy independence that ends dependence on polluting fuels.

To learn more, or to sign the Declaration of Endependence and join us, please visit .

Anonymous said...

One word... outsource.

Andrew said...


I disagree about the importance of getting cheap energy first. Once someone "figures it out," they won't be able to maintain a monopoly on the technology. Tech is too easily transferred. The only reason that energy production is currently monopolized is that it is tied to natural resources that are obviously abundant in certain geographical locations. When this natural advantage is removed, I would be surprised if cheap/clean energy were not fairly quickly available in all technologically capable countries.

CarlBrannen said...

The objectives of the Manhattan and Apollo projects were very limited in that they did not involve modifying the behavior of every inhabitant of the country (as far as consuming fuels go), and they were not intended as exercises in improving efficiency.

I've never seen the government do anything efficiently except kill people (i.e. Manhattan project) and, arguably at least once, put vehicles into outer space. And I suspect private enterprise would do both these more efficiently.

The number of scientists or other people who have experience, for example, turning cellulose into ethanol, is quite limited. To the extent that the government does start a program that hires a lot of talent, etc., this makes it that much more difficult for business to compete for those same people.

When the government puts a great deal of money into science the effect is not necessarily very pretty (though it is good for the pocketbooks of scientists). What happens is that humans act to get the money without regard to whether or not the objectives of the program are met or not. I am reminded of the twin fiascos in string theory and global warming where spending has ballooned but the science has become even further divorced from reality.

Anonymous said...

Andrew, you say Tech is too easily transferred. It is not so obvious.

Take Manhattan and production of atomic energy. Countries having this technology did their best to keep technology to themselves. And it is not the Cold War time, think about Iranian attempts and N. Korean. Some countries immediately start to talk about their danger. I do not see why it would not happen again.

Another example: Jackson-Vanik amendment, which was obviously political way of preventing leackage of technologies behind Iron Curtain.

I would agree with you that when oil runs out another (not necessarily clean) energy source would show up. And I do not think US Govt. wants to invest huge money into vague scientific projects like "clean energy", while the industry is already gone elsewhere. I expect it would busy itself with keeping dominance or just the level of life without actually having a big gun (it's hard though). It would rather wait for others to get desperate. IMHO ;)

Jackson said...

Thank you..