What happened to innovation?

August 25, 2011

As our dependence on fossil fuels continues to persist compounded by demand from the emerging economies of China and India, you would think our universities would be encouraging their graduate students to enter research programs in search of alternatives to oil. But that is not the case. In a recent August 24, 2011 interview on American Public Media’s Market Place, I learned that the high price of oil is spurring demand for petroleum engineers. “Students flock to college programs in the field with six-figure starting salaries as incentives,” reports Nathan Bernier from KUT in Austin, TX.

A second year doctoral student in petroleum engineering at the University of Texas is excited about the prospects of landing one of these six-figure starting salaries which will station her in Western Canada to look for oil in the tar sands. I wonder if she is aware of the over 160 people who have been arrested in ongoing civil disobedience against Keystone XL Tar Sands Oil Pipeline? There has been an ongoing protest of concerned citizens who have held sit-ins in front of the White House since last week and will continue for the next two weeks to call on the Obama administration to reject a permit for the 1,700-mile Keystone XL pipeline project, which would deliver Canada tar sands oil to refineries in Texas, rather than focus resources on developing clean energy.

The same doctoral student interviewed said that she was aware of the stigma facing her profession as a petroleum engineer, given the “link between fossil fuels and climate change.” However, she said “until an alternative becomes widely available, people will continue to rely on gasoline cars.” But, aren’t our graduate research degree programs intended to encourage innovations in search for alternatives? The purpose of a doctoral thesis is to present findings on an “original” body of research. We are not contributing anything original by supporting a field of study that propagates a way of life that only perpetuates our addiction to oil.

In fact, alternatives to fossil fuels do exist. What the burgeoning alternative energy industries need is public awareness (which leads to demand), academic support by our research universities (fosters innovations), and the backing of government and political leaders (provides economic incentives, encouraging new industries and creating jobs).

After seeing a screening of the documentary “Freedom” (check out www.thefreedomfilm.com) I, along with others in the audience, was inspired to learn of the slew of alternatives available. One is ethanol. But scientists hired and supported by oil companies quickly fed us science claiming that producing corn for the production of ethanol harmed the food supply and food prices. In fact, food prices are linked to petroleum prices. Check out another informative documentary “Save The Farm” (www.savethefarmmovie.com) to learn about localizing our food source. “Freedom” proves that the science brought out against ethanol as an alternative fuel source was a myth, but it succeeded in even convincing the avid environmentalist to turn its back on this form of energy that would help localize production and free us from dependence on foreign oil.

I only wish that more of our young bright scientists entering doctoral programs would be less seduced by Big Oil and instead be the leaders of a new and more evolved approach to our energy needs. It’s time to innovate. The old way is about to expire just like the dinosaurs!

Jasmin S. Kuehnert
President & CEO ACEI, Inc.

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Filed under Education, Innovation

4 responses to “What happened to innovation?

  1. James Nowac

    Bravo Jasmin!!! I am so PROUD of you and every word you wrote here.
    I also wish that, people will be more driven by what is right for all of us, and the environment, and NOT be so attracted to the wrong MONEY making ways. If money is what they are after, there is money to be made in the right ways, which will preserve our hearth for many more generations.
    Love you!

  2. James Nowac

    oops, I meant Earth for many more generations.

  3. “The purpose of a doctoral thesis is to present findings on an ‘original’ body of research.”

    Unfortunately it seems that this notion has been lost on many graduate students these days. My theory – we’re fostering a society of lazy, title-hungry workers. Not lazy like a pot-smoking teenager, but lazy like a politician who is unwilling to fight the status quo. And it’s not the research behind the thesis that matters, but the suffix that’s awarded for writing it.

    Of course this is a gross generalization, but it seems to be a growing trend as exemplified by the mindset of our petroleum engineer above. On the other hand, who can blame them? With our economy struggling to breath and not an oxygen tank in sight, personal success is trumping social responsibility. So, unfortunately, many of our brightest minds are being drawn to “proven” industries with big payouts rather than taking a risk on innovation. But to your point, Jasmin, we will eventually run out of oil. I just hope we still have enough proactive innovators taking the long road before it’s too late to build the bridge.

    • Thanks for your insightful comment. I just heard on the radio about entrepreneurs from the Green industry working with the Pentagon to come up with innovative tools, machinery, you name it, that use alternative fuels. Pentagon wants to become less dependent on oil to help reduce the cost of running the military. Its interesting where and by whom innovation is being embraced!

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