If you're ever tempted to think that the city's messiest politics are found only on Capitol Hill, have a chat with energy expert Robert L. Hirsch, whose termination from the Rand Corp. last fall still rankles him. His behind-the-scenes tale of a policy report gone awry is awash in policy disagreements and charges and countercharges.
Rand hired Hirsch in January 2001, and he began work on the report "Energy Technologies for 2050," a $200,000 study commissioned by the Department of Energy's Fossil Energy Program. His mission was to develop a methodology that could be used to evaluate the viability of energy technologies over the next 50 years. Then in October, Hirsch was fired.
On that much, Hirsch and Rand agree. It's what happened in between that's controversial.
Hirsch, now head of the National Research Council's Board on Energy and Environmental Systems, said Rand was trying to squash his report because its preliminary conclusions were unpalatable to DOE, Rand's client.
"When management plays around with you for a couple of weeks and then takes [your report] away to give it to somebody else and tells you that the report will go out without the two sections that offended people in DOE -- to me, that's prima facie evidence of a cover-up," Hirsch said. "If that's not the case, I don't know what is."
That wasn't the case to Rand. "The problems were with the methodology, not the results," said James Dewar, a senior Rand official and methodology expert who shored up the report. "If the methodology was sound and that's how the results came out, we'd have no problem. Rand certainly doesn't shy away from saying something uncomfortable to its clients."
In the report, Hirsch, an engineer who has worked at DOE and Arco Oil and Gas Co., developed a preliminary methodology and tried it on three technologies: solar cells, fusion and coal gasification. His early conclusions were that coal gasification is close to being practical, fusion research is on the wrong track and solar cells are impractical for large-scale use.
He said that rubbed DOE the wrong way, contending the agency is heavily invested in fusion and loath to be seen as being against renewable energy.
A DOE spokesman said the agency did advise Rand of its concerns, but that these regarded the work's quality and "a misapplication of the study's parameters."
"Out-of-date data and inappropriate market assumptions led the analyst to reach strongly negative judgments for both photovoltaic and fusion," said a DOE summary of the study and controversy. "While the study reached positive conclusions for the coal-based technology, its serious shortcomings in analyzing the other two technologies led [Fossil Energy] -- and subsequently other DOE offices -- to question the study's overall technical and analytical quality."
Hirsch said he was abruptly fired for sharing a draft of the report, which he admits doing as a last resort, saying he feared the conclusions would not get out otherwise. Rand officials said they cannot comment on the reasons for the firing.
"Hirsch is an honorable guy and intellectually honest, and I think he was badly treated," said John McCaughey, a contributor to Electricity Daily newsletter and a friend of Hirsch's. "The more important point is that a fantastic amount of taxpayers' money is being spent on things like this. . . . Hirsch's problem, in my opinion, was that he said the emperor has no clothes."
Rand officials said there was never any discussion of deleting sections of the report. They said the problems arose because Hirsch's draft report did not meet Rand's quality standards and that Hirsch himself was unresponsive to constructive criticism from colleagues and reviewers. They also said Hirsch's findings were neither new nor politically sensitive.
"You know we're particularly sensitive to using the platform of what's supposed to be an analytical report as a soapbox for basically an op-ed piece or an opinion that's not grounded in analysis. And this was a concern in this case," said Rand's Debra Knopman.
Hirsch now works as a senior energy program adviser for SAIC, a research and engineering company.
"The record shows I'm not an extremist," he said. "I have an established record of credibility. . . . I found a flaw in Rand which was extremely disappointing, and I still don't understand how [they] could allow such a thing to happen."
The report is still in rewrite. DOE expects to receive a new draft in the next several weeks.
FROM CUBA WITH LOVE: This month's Foreign Policy magazine, published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, reprints a book review by U.S. persona non grata Fidel Castro. Turns out the Cuban dictator (and self-revealed dictionary lover) is buddies with Latin American author Gabriel Garcia Marquez ("Gabo" to Fidel), whose autobiography was published last fall in Spanish.
The mag's cover gets it right: "Fidel Castro Swoons Over Garcia Marquez." Castro also reveals he has been a victim of Marquez's "dazzling exaggerations. Once he even asserted that I had eaten 18 ice cream scoops, a statement that, as one can imagine, I protested with great vigor."
MARCH MADNESS: March is one big party for economic types. The libertarian Cato Institute had a bash last week to honor William A. Niskanen, its chairman of 17 years. Econo-guests included: Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan, Nobel Prize winner James M. Buchanan and Brookings Institution Vice President Robert E. Litan.
Tonight, the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute is having a shindig for former head Jeff Faux (the invites read "FAUX: The Real Deal"). Among the speakers: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), AFL-CIO head John J. Sweeney and American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees head Gerald W. McEntee.