Science isn’t always sexy. Even critically important science. If you’re a researcher who believes that studying the conductivity of certain molecules underneath a microscope could one day lead to a breakthrough in renewable energy, you might be hard-pressed to find a venture capitalist willing to fund your far-off, uncertain ROI. Government funding fluctuates too, as political cycles dictate priorities every couple of years.
Earlier this month, Caltech admitted its first class of post-doctoral Resnick Sustainability Institute fellows, a group chosen to work on some of the fundamental science that the program’s executive director Neil Fromer hopes could one day transform the American energy landscape. Backed with a $30 million endowment, Fromer aims to nurture early-stage energy ideas that are regularly ignored by other funders.
Some of those ideas include the study of catalysts that could help pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and convert it to energy, along with the development of new, low-cost solar fuel cells. “Energy is a challenging thing to develop infrastructure for, so it’s not really suited for the venture mindset,” Fromer says. “But there are innovative ways to fund early-stage ideas.”
Caltech is far from the only research university with a sustainability institute–nor does it house the only researchers working on these sorts of ideas. But with its own funding source, the Resnick Institute is somewhat shielded from other external ebbs and flows of research capital.
The Institute’s biggest challenge, however, will be convincing the business world and new funding partners to talk the language of long-term science. Caltech’s video of its fellows describing their projects is a case in point. It shows, in some ways, how difficult it can be to illustrate the bigger vision from the jargon-riddled world of tiny molecular interactions.
Fromer is the first to acknowledge that if scientists want to make their energy pitches compelling, they’ll also need business lessons. “In some ways we’re trying to reclaim the thought leadership on this issue,” Fromer says.