Opinion: When the wells run dry
The practice and funding of science may change drastically when humanity enters an era of energy crisis, in which cheap oil is but a distant memory
It's 2029. You are ready to present your latest data at a major international conference in Paris. You're nervous, but prepared. In the past, attending such a conference would have meant boarding a plane, accompanied by a grad student or post doc, with whom you'd also likely enjoy the cafes and museums of Paris, perhaps making a day trip to visit Monet's gardens in Giverny. But those days are over. You will be attending the conference and making your presentation from your office computer because high fuel prices have made air travel unaffordable for all except the elite.
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Your research program has also been circumscribed. Two decades ago, you had a far flung program with international projects, exploring basic biological principles. Now your research, close to home and on a shoe string budget, addresses topics strongly influenced by direct needs of society.
All of these changes were a long time coming. With the industrial revolution came massive increases in fossil fuel use, dramatic economic and population growth, and widespread environmental degradation, all of which growing evidence suggests is not sustainable. By the end of the 20th
century, about half of ultimately recoverable conventional oil reserves had been used, with the remaining trillion barrels of conventional oil likely lasting just three decades. And though renewable energy sources will clearly play a role in providing energy in the future, they simply cannot provide fuels in the quantities needed to offset the decline in oil production.
But while the most hyperbolic doomsayers posit catastrophic scenarios of oil shortage, global conflict, and severe deprivation, the truth is that long before society downsizes in the face of energy scarcity, climate change, resource depletion, and population growth, the way science is done and the role of research in society will likely change drastically.
One of the main ways that the average scientist will feel the effects of oil shortages will be as everyone does: by an enormous inflation in the cost of doing business. Most scientific research is expensive not just in terms of dollars, but also in terms of energy. On average, for each dollar researchers spend today, the energy equivalent of about a cup of oil is used. A $1 million grant can consume the equivalent of about 1,100 barrels of oil. In the future, the same amount of dollars will buy significantly less research, and scientists will have to become much more efficient and inventive in doing research.
Far flung research projects, particularly common among ecologists and other natural scientists, will also become much less affordable. Trips to distant scientific meetings will also become prohibitively expensive. Electronic conferencing will become the norm.
The nature of interaction within the scientific community may change as well. Like the competitive atmosphere already experienced in developing countries, limited resources may lead groups to be less open and to actively exclude other groups.
In a time of energy scarcity, societal priorities will also shift, and science will be justified and supported based on the perception of how it is helping solve mounting societal problems. While today basic science is often considered intellectually superior and more elegant than applied science, in coming decades, applied science will become dominant, as research becomes required to preserve the functioning of ecosystems and the services they provide.
Natural scientists, especial those in the field of ecology, will have a critical role to play in this bleak future, in which the human economy depends much more on ecological systems. With transport and global trade hobbled, people will have to depend to a greater extent on nearby ecosystems, both natural and agricultural. Highly productive ecosystems have enormous economic value. The natural asset value of the Mississippi delta, for example, has been estimated to be as high as $1.4 trillion. Research on these natural communities will receive more attention, as more food, fuel, and fiber will have to be coaxed from nature in a sustainable way.
Unfortunately, degradation and conversion of natural landscapes for other uses, such as agriculture, roads, cities and industry, have already hurt the productivity of many natural ecosystems. And while conservation efforts have helped protect natural areas and biodiversity, researchers must now aim to restore natural ecosystems and their services in these areas. The improvement of soils in an Illinois farm field may not have the mystique of preserving a Yellowstone geyser, for example, but it is critically important to food production.
The impending end of cheap oil has enormous implications for many of the ways that scientists, and especially ecologists, operate. These issues have generally gone un-discussed by economists and scientists over the last few decades of energy abundance, but the golden age of science where hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent on expensive and far flung research programs to answer basic scientific questions may be coming to an end. A second golden age could dawn, however, with scientists working closer to home on projects that provide for the human population and maintain valuable ecosystem services. Only time will tell.
J. Day, et al., "Ecology in times of scarcity," linkurl:BioScience
,;http://www.bioone.org/doi/abs/10.1525/bio.2009.59.4.10?journalCode=bisi 59: 321-331, 2009.
C. Hall and J. Day, "Revisiting limits to growth after peak oil," linkurl:American Scientist
,;http://www.americanscientist.org/issues/id.6381/issue.aspx 92: 230-237, 2009. linkurl:Free F1000 evaluation;http://f1000.com/1161118?key=dnkmgktdz2qr275
D. Batker, et al., "Gaining ground: Wetlands, hurricanes and the economy: The value of restoring the mississippi river delta," linkurl:Earth Economics, Inc.;http://www.eartheconomics.org/Page96.aspx Tacoma, WA. 98 p, 2010.
linkurl:John Day;http://f1000.com/thefaculty/member/2925071722511606 is a Professor Emeritus in the department of Oceanography and Coastal Sciences at the School of the Coast and Environment, Louisiana State University, and an F1000 member since 2010.
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