The ITER fusion project demonstrates a solidity of purpose that is sorely lacking across the rest of the energy research spectrum.
Last week´s formal agreement in Paris to begin construction of the ITER experimental fusion reactor at Cadarache in France was a satisfying culmination of decades of effort by the fusion community. The project may or may not ensure the technical future of magnetic fusion energy, but it will certainly provide an invaluable focal point for its investigation for decades to come.
The agreement to build ITER - which, in a landmark move, includes significant contributions from both India and China - is out of character, however. There is no corresponding effort, collaborative or otherwise, to do the research that is needed to aggressively pursue any of the other multifarious approaches to tackling the mounting global energy crisis.
Energy research and development has actually collapsed since the aftermath of the last energy crisis in the 1970s. Indeed, according to an assessment by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Washington state, global expenditure on it has fallen by two-thirds since 1974. This time, climate change and a vast upsurge in the Asian demand for energy, as well as a crisis in the Middle East, mean it is almost universally acknowledged that the energy crisis is here to stay. But there is still no serious effort to revive energy research.
The reasons (or excuses) for inaction vary from place to place. One universal theme lurking in the background is the belief that market forces will pull viable energy sources to fruition, without the need for publicly supported research. Oddly enough, this argument doesn´t stop governments supporting basic and applied research in areas such as public health, where they perceive a pressing need to push technology forward into the market. In any case, market forces are largely absent, as most users of fossil fuel still don´t pay the real cost of their carbon emissions.