I’m not saying that’s terrible. That has produced a lot of really good work. But we did it at the expense of small independent labs. Now we live in an age where collaboration across distance is very easy because of the Internet. Tools are cheaper than ever. And I think it’s time to ask the question: Is this way that we allocate society’s research resources as good as it could be? Meaning that we largely spend it at universities and in national labs.
I would love to see many, many more small labs because I think small teams of people are where the real innovation happens. And geographic diversity—having more people thinking about their local specific problems, in the context of the general research that society needs to do—would be really useful.
Where do you think the most exciting energy innovation is happening now?
In the energy space, the most exciting things are nearly all happening in little startups, I think, and well, big startups—I think Tesla is doing a great job. I think Makani now at Google [Google acquired Makani in May] is doing really interesting stuff in wind. I think there’s a bunch of interesting private companies doing biofuels research. I’m not a huge fan of biofuels, but I’m glad that they’re doing it and they’re doing work well.
The list is sadly short. Not a lot of kids grow up thinking, “Oh energy is the problem I want to work on.” Everyone wants to solve the climate problem, but very few teenagers are aware that you solve that by solving the way that we produce and use energy. I would like, for my four-year-old son and my newborn daughter’s sake, more good energy research.
You came to California from Sydney, Australia, by way of Cambridge, England. What brought you here, and what keeps you here?
I think the honest version is wanderlust— you know, spirit of adventure, travel the world and see where the winds take me. But if I did revisionist history, or thought about what was the magnetic pull that made me wind up in California, I could not do what we are doing in this building in Australia. Australia does not have the R&D funding or the culture of research and development that would enable this. It would be difficult to find the set of talent that we have in this building in Australia.
In this building, there are a number of foreign nationals who, like me, are in California because of two reasons: America has the right culture to do this work. And America has the right capital structures. There is risk capital available for crazy people like me in California.
Sadly, I think America’s at risk of losing both of those advantages. And they are huge advantages. Technology is really the frontier—it drives economic progress. America has won the last century because it had the best people. Think of the Manhattan Project—it was largely Eastern Europeans who did the physics and the math and the engineering. They were imports; same for the Apollo mission; same for a huge number of things.
America has traditionally pulled in the best and brightest people from the entire world and put them to creative effort in the interest of America. But due to security paranoia and immigration concerns, America is dropping the ball on that.