IN THE CRUCIAL field of energy research and development, the Reagan administration's priorities are badly skewed. The administration's critics have been saying so for some time. Now the same judgment comes form a highly qualified panel of the Energy Department's own Energy Research Advisory Board.
This panel, you should know, gives heavy representation to industry and to engineering. This is not the sandals and granola crowd. It does not propose to resolve energy shortages through transcendental meditation. The chairman of the panel is John S. Foster Jr., a nuclear physicist, who was the Defense Department's chief scientist a decade ago and is now vice president for technology of TRW, Inc. The vice chairman is William McCormic, and executive of the Michigan-Wisconsin Pipeline Co. Their recommendations deserve careful attention.
Disproportionate amounts of federal money are being poured into the technologies--most of them nuclear-to generate electricity, the panel concluded. More broadly, it warns that too much of the federal support for research and development is going into attempts to expand supply, and not enough into conservation. The administration has severely cut the funds for conservation research although, the panel notes, "it has so far contributed much more than supply augmentations in reducing our dependence on insecure oil imports."
While it's highly important to develop more efficient methods of oil recovery, the panel observes that the oil industry is fully capable of doing this work itself; federal funding ought to be cut. In contrast, the fragmented construction industry has very little ability to develop technology, and here an increase in federal support is important.
As for nuclear power, the panel correctly calls for more support for the current generation of light water reactors. In this field, the top priority is a federal program to dispose of radioactive waste. The trouble here is not in the realm of technology but rather in the political inability of the federal government to come to a decision. Where to cut back support? The panel points to the Clinch River Breeder Reactor, among other unpromising ventures.
This report gives extraordinary emphasis to the urgent need for research on the climate and the effects of the increasing loads of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. As this country and the world burn more coal, governments need better information on its effects. The threat of an overload of carbon dioxide, changing the planet's climate, is perhaps not immediate. But it would impose an absolute limit on fuel consumption, with implications making the oil crises and dislocations of the past decade seem trivial. Only the federal government can support the scientific work on the scale now necessary.
This advice is clear, well-informed and convincing. It represents a very considerable departure from the administration's current allocations of funds for energy research. But there's nothing at all wrong with that.