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Politics and Photosynthesis

In principle, photosynthesis research seems like a relatively nonpolitical subject. However, in reality, it is an integral part of recent science policy debates. Photosynthesis and science policy intersect in two main ways. First of all, much of the scientific research on photosynthesis that occurs in this country depends on government money. Secondly, photosynthesis research is a part of a recent political movement to transform our energy system.

Investing in green energy is a political movement that is not gaining momentum fast enough in the United States. China is now the largest producer of solar panels,7 and the Chinese government is investing heavily in green energy technologies. Many governments are realizing the potential economic gains for their entire countries and green energy's potential to dominate the energy market. In his state of the union address in January 2010, President Obama warned that the United States was falling behind other countries, including China, on green energy development. He said, “I do not accept a future where the jobs and industries of tomorrow take root beyond our borders.”7

President Obama has said that he would like to make investment in energy and science one of the cornerstones of his presidency. While this may seem rather uncontroversial, the problem is that the money needs to come from somewhere, and there are bound to be people upset with how the money is allocated. Since President Obama was elected, overall spending on research has stayed roughly the same (0.6% increase for 2009); however, $21 billion, or about one third of the yearly budget for research, from the stimulus bill went to research.8 In 2009, Congress gave $400 million dollars to the Advanced Research Projects Agency - Energy (ARPA-E), an agency that, according to Science magazine, was little more than file cabinets at the time.9 The agency quotes John F. Kennedy when describing their mission: "There are risks and costs to a program of action. Still, they are far less than the long-range risks and costs of comfortable inaction."10 The organization hopes to fund research work that will revolutionize energy technologies. An additional $100 million for innovative research projects was announced on March 2nd, 2010.

It is unfortunately still too early to tell whether President Obama’s interest in green energy will become a legacy of his presidency. In February 2010, President Obama told the National Academy of the Sciences that he predicted that his commitment to scientific research and innovation would lead to "solar cells and cheap as paint [and] green buildings that produce all the energy that they consume."8 In his 2011 State of the Union address, President Obama stressed the importance of investing in green energy. His 2012 budget proposal reflects that promise, maintaining current levels of funding for science research. While such comparisons are exciting, some are worried about what will happen when the relatively slow pace of scientific research fails to yield a golden nugget by election time.

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