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Where Bush would steer energy R&D

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If new technology is a key answer to global warming and America's addiction to oil, then President Bush's proposal to boost federal spending on energy R&D – by no less than 30 percent in fiscal 2008 – would seem a welcome step.

In the new $2.7 billion budget plan, R&D dollars allotted to the US Department of Energy (DOE) continue a transition toward research that will help cut greenhouse gases.

But overall federal spending on energy research in real dollars is only one-third what it was at its 1978 peak, according to a Harvard University analysis. Some also question the administration's emphasis on nuclear research, saying other promising technologies could be applied sooner to climate and energy-security issues.

"The new DOE budget doesn't reflect the big increase in public concern about greenhouse gases," says energy expert Richard Newell, formerly a senior economist on the President's Council of Economic Advisers, now at Duke University in North Carolina.

Because the federal government remains the largest investor in energy R&D, its spending priorities are of keen interest to scientists, environmentalists, energy entrepreneurs, utilities, and the general public – especially as concerns rise about both climate change and energy security. As might be expected, the new budget proposal has a host of critics. Among the concerns:

•Next year's budget request would boost funding for biofuel, clean-coal, battery, and solar technologies. But it eliminates research for hydropower and geo-thermal, two renewable energy sources.

•Spending on energy-efficiency programs, which in the past led to low-power refrigerators and energy-saving compact fluorescent bulbs, would drop.

•There would be a fourfold increase from 2006 in spending for nuclear-fuel reprocessing, a practice that many experts say does little to replace oil and remains years from commercialization.

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