Energy is big right now. The most important fuel of the last century or so--oil--is being used up; the only question is how soon it will be gone. The energy supply may be the limiting factor on how many people can live at a high standard--especially if they consume energy at the prodigious pace Americans do--and the standard of living of billions of people is growing fast.
So the world needs new, cleaner energy sources, and the only way to find them--and to make the exploitation of known clean sources cost-effective--is scientific research. It seems obvious, then, that the world needs more good energy researchers.
Yet thoughtful analysts of the scientific job market make a clear distinction between social need and economic need; just because the world requires your skills doesn't mean that someone will be willing to pay your salary.
Someone probably will, however, in energy. In the short term, the recent budget agreement in the U.S. House of Representatives (which, hopefully, will already have been passed by the Senate by the time this is published) provides more money for the Department of Energy's (DOE’s) Office of Science. The president's 2008 budget request for DOE also includes healthy science-office gains. In one of this week's articles, Juan de Bedout reports that GE plans to double it's spending on "green technologies" over the next 5 years--to an impressive $1.5 billion. Many other energy companies are ramping up their investments in clean energy. The number of energy-related startups--although tiny by Internet-bubble standards--is increasing.
And in the long term? Critical social needs tend to translate into economic demand. The global need for clean energy seems likely to yield plenty of research jobs.
However well supply and demand match up in the future, the goal of this feature is to provide a small, random sample of what it's like for scientists to work on energy-related problems today, in the private sector.
First up is Juan de Bedout, a Ph.D. engineer who heads a research team at GE Global Research in Niskayuna, New York. De Bedout focuses on integrating sustainable energy sources--such as wind and solar--into the electricity grid.
Next comes Elisheva White, an Israeli energy consultant working with industry and the Israeli government. Right now, White is focused on helping Israel meet it's obligations under the Kyoto protocols.
Finally, we profile Steffen Jensen, who was trained in high-energy physics, worked in optical networking, then gave up his bicycle commute to join SolFocus, a Silicon-Valley-based solar energy company.
Jim Austin is the editor of Science Careers.
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