Designing an Effective. Federal Biomass Program

David Morris[1]

Inntitute for Local Self-Reliance, Suite 303,
1313 5th Street SE, Minneapolin, MN 55415,
E-mail: dmorrin@ilnr. org


This article addresses two questions: Has the effectiveness of the US government’s federal research and development (R&D) spending suffered from the post-1980 strategic change from freely shared and publicly owned to privately owned scientific advances? What criteria would a federal R&D program use to design a strategy that most effectively enhances the well­being of farmers and rural communities? Several studies found that the pre — 1980 US Department of Agriculture research strategy was very effective. No comparable studies have analyzed the comparative effectiveness of the post — 1980 strategy of restricting access to the results of public research. Recent experience and several analytical studies suggest that to significantly enhance the health of rural economies from an expanded use of plant matter as an industrial material, federal policy should channel scientific and engi­neering research into small- and medium-sized production and processing technologies and should encourage farmer-owned, value-added enterprises.

Index Entries: Ethanol; scale; ownership; research and development; effectiveness.


One of the twentieth century’s greatest scientists and thinkers, Albert Einstein, observed, "Perfection of means and confusion of ends seem to characterize our society." Are the US government’s federal programs sup­porting industrial uses of biomass an example of such thinking?

The ends of the federal biomass programs are clear enough: enhanced national security, improved environmental protection, stronger rural economies. Research is a means to these ends. Are the federal biomass programs designed to most effectively achieve these ends?

Federal programs and policies channel scientific genius and entrepre­neurial energy and investment capital in specific directions. Regarding biomass, the overall impact of direct spending and tax incentives is not insubstantial.

The federal government spends more than $200 million annually directly on research and development (R&D) directed toward expanding industrial uses of biomass. Assuming a three — to one-average private-to — public investment match, this federal direct spending attracts an addi­tional $600 million in private spending. Federal biomass-related tax incentives presently "spend" more than $1 billion per year. This in turn attracts several billion dollars of private investment in these areas. The vast majority at present goes into expanding ethanol production.

This article examines some aspects of federal R&D efforts in the bio­mass area. It raises two areas of question. One is whether the post-1980 changes in the way the federal government conducts biomass research has made the biomass R&D effort more or less effective in achieving its stated goals. The observations are primarily directed toward the Department of Agriculture because the vast majority of its research is conducted in-house by permanent scientific staff.

The second area of question focuses on one of those goals, improving the well-being of America’s farmers and rural communities, and suggests that social criteria can and should inform and guide engineering research strategies. The observations are primarily directed toward the Department of Energy (DOE), although they are broadly applicable to agency heads and policy makers.