Innovation Earth: Innovation, Interrupted

It's now Day 8 of the government shutdown, and a lot of people are hurting: more than 800,000 federal workers sent home without pay (soon-to-be 450,000, with the Department of Defense calling back its furloughed workers); kids with cancer being turned away from their clinical trials and needy families facing food bank shortages. Their pain is real and immediate, but some of the greatest suffering may ultimately come to our country collectively, as potentially groundbreaking climate and energy research -- not to mention policy -- is now put on hold.

We know that President Obama's climate change agenda has hit a major setback, with 94 percent of EPA employees now unable to do their jobs (including the newly tasked job of tackling carbon pollution from coal-fired power plants), but environmental innovation has been interrupted all across the board. Just a sampling:

  • New vehicle fuel-economy ratings are in limbo for the time being, since the EPA also can't update its website. This could mean that some automakers will have to delay the launch of their new cars, since by law an EPA rating is required to be displayed on every new car sold in the US. (Those little window stickers are called Monroney stickers, by the way, after Sen. Mike Monroney. He helped pave the way for American automotive and aviation safety and who, according to Wikipedia, was also voted "nicest senator." Congress, are you listening?)
Honda's Accord Hybrid sidestepped the shutdown and will still be released later this month, but electric car company Tesla's
may drag on since NHTSA researchers can't investigate while they're off the job.

  • More renewable energy innovation is on hold while the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is unable to process applications or issue new permits for offshore wind, wave and ocean current projects. Of course, the agency won't be able to approve new permits for oil and gas exploration, either, though Forbes contributor David Blackmon writes that the industry won't be feeling much pain.
  • And speaking of oil ... New Jersey's one-of-a-kind National Oil Spill Response Research and Renewable Energy Test Facility (OHMSETT), which works on developing new technologies for dealing with oil and other hazardous material spills, is once again shuttered. (Now from the shutdown; before due to damage from Hurricane Sandy). In the event of an oil spill, however (please, no), employees from BOEM will "be available ... to handle the event," according to a contingency plan.
    • Perhaps the most sobering news: Our science and clean technology future is at stake, as institutions like Oregon State University are reporting $600,000 a day in lost research funding. That school's current research partners include (from an exhaustive list) the Department of Agriculture, U.S. Forest Service, NOAA, NASA, and the NSF, as well as a partnership with the USGS on a major climate change research program. As of last Friday, the school had "already spent $2.4 million on being idled."

    And that's just one school. Now multiply that times all the schools and facilities across the U.S. that rely on federal funds to do groundbreaking research on energy and climate change, times however many days the shutdown drags on, and you start to realize the magnitude of the knowledge and innovation that could not only be stymied, but never even realized.

    Not all is lost, thankfully: The U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon -- which challenges 20 collegiate teams of our best and brightest to design and build cutting-edge, yet cost-effective solar-powered houses -- is currently taking place as planned. The Decathlon has always been held on the National Mall, but this year the competition is located 3,000 miles away in Irvine, Calif., reflecting literal rays of sunshine away from the negativity in Washington.

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