“You know, Alice, when I was in undergrad I thought I really wanted to work in private industry because it’s faster. I thought it wouldn’t have all the red tape with public funding, but now that I work in private, I’m realizing that there is red tape too, just a different kind.” Sitting outside at a coffee shop in Southern California, I spoke with Peter, a plasma physicist, about his decades-long career at a private fusion company. Even though it was fall, normally a very temperate time in Southern California, the temperature was in the mid-90s. The heatwave and COVID-19 pandemic meant that we were forced to meet outside in one of the few shaded seating areas the coffee shop provided. These two concurrent crises—climate change and the COVID pandemic—put into stark relief the conversation we had regarding Peter’s motivations for working on fusion energy and joining a private company. When I asked Peter to expound on his experience with red tape in private industry, he explained: “Certainly, the money flows faster, but I have to make sure I am meeting investor timelines and have to deal with all these check-ins. And if you are not producing results, not at all dissimilar to a government funding agency, they will pull my funding.” Ultimately, with a hint of frustration and sadness, he continued: “The same technical hurdles still exist and they are not going to go away just because I work at a private company.”
Peter’s experiences refute two common myths associated with the relationship between science funding and research: (1) more money means faster research and (2) private industry is faster and more dynamic compared to the government. Putting more money into science and technology research is complicated: more money does not always mean faster results. And historically, public funding has been at the center of major scientific breakthroughs, not private capital. But in the face of climate change, the need for non-carbon energy sources is more apparent now than ever. It is because of this urgency that physicists are seeking out ways to quickly develop a commercial fusion reactor.
Almost a century in the making, fusion energy research is currently in its heyday in terms of its support amongst private and public financiers. Recent breakthroughs, such as the National Ignition Facility’s (NIF) recent fusion experiment that produced net energy for the first time in history, have made many investors, governments, and scientists hopeful fusion will be able to replace oil and gas in the near future (Thomas 2022). Fusion is the most powerful form of energy known to humans: just one gallon of seawater (the fuel for fusion energy) is equivalent to the energy output of 300 gallons of gasoline (DOE). But fusion, the same reaction that powers the sun, is extremely difficult to replicate in a controlled environment. In order to overcome the energy barrier required to bring two atoms together, scientists must create and maintain heat hotter than the core of the sun, which is a massive technical challenge. For example, the NIF reaction lasted less than a billionth of a second.
This article explores how the relationship between technology development and the climate crisis is transformed into a discourse over the political economy of quick research, debating the “speed” of US government funding versus the “speed” of private industry on funding breakthroughs. Drawing from fieldwork with physicists and funders from private industry to the Department of Energy (DOE) and archival research into the history of US science funding, I show how the neoliberalization of science funding obscures the role of the US government in funding technological breakthroughs. Stark divisions between what is seen as private versus public funding fail to take into account the history and necessity of the US government in shaping and creating emerging energy technologies. As fusion is a long haul project that develops quite slowly and at some points, seems to be at odds with “speedy” research, it becomes a perfect entry point to understand the imaginations that shape perceptions and desires for speedy technological advancements. Speed must be seen as a juncture through which crisis futures come to root themselves in the present. Speed comes to represent not only certain temporal perceptions, but also how our own understandings of history, politics, and life are (re)shaped in the midst of crisis.
Speed in the Sciences
In 2018, the United Nations Intergovermental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published a report on the consequences of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels (IPCC 2018, 3-24). The consequences are, of course, quite devastating. Many of my interlocutors are concerned with “runaway” climate change, where positive feedback loops triggered by global warming are beyond the control of mitigation and cannot be adapted to. In order to mitigate the effects of climate change and to avoid a “point of no return,” we must reach net-zero by 2050.
2050 has become a perilous number within the fusion and public policy community. During a White House summit on developing commercial fusion energy I had remotely attended in 2022, there was vigorous mobilization around the year 2050. In a fusion industry panel during the summit, Andrew Holland, the CEO of the Fusion Industry Association, was adamant that “we need a go-fast attitude” to meet a 2050 deadline. Holland implied industry was faster at research, arguing “that we [fusion] are an industry backed by private capital so we have a limited time frame. We follow the time frame of investors and they want a return on money.” He later went on to state that “93% of publicly known fusion companies globally expect to see commercial fusion by the 2030s or before.” At the White House fusion summit, private industry stood big. And they repeated a phrase often heard throughout my fieldwork: private funding needs a return on investment so they move much more quickly.
It is easy to see why there is so much belief in the private fusion industry. Currently, 29 fusion companies have over $5 billion dollars committed in private capital, including energy conglomerates, philanthropic donors, investment firms, and venture capital (FIA 2022). Over $2 billion of that funding came in 2021 alone. In comparison, US government funding for fusion energy and its ancillary projects in 2021 was roughly a third of private fusion funding investment (Cunliff and Nguyen 2021). Several fusion CEOs at the conference argued that private industry is “where we can build them and build them quickly”.
The perception that private industry is more dynamic and speedier than government funding is in part due to the US government’s reputation as an entity bogged down in paperwork and slow decision-making. This is not entirely false. A former director of a national lab had exhaustedly described to me all of his struggles in securing government funding—including a 6 month period where he had to fly to DC almost every other week to convince Congress to continue funding the lab. Even if he knew funding was secure, he also described his annoyance at congressional budget delays. One year, he did not get his lab’s annual budget until three months into the year, which heavily delayed their ability to hire new scientists, fulfill contracts, and move forward with projects. These delays are a congressional problem—and often come from internal politicking over funding allocations to the Department of Energy (DOE) and the National Science Foundation (NSF). This has gotten worse in recent years with a gridlocked Congress. In contrast, money from private industry is thought to move quicker as they tend to be more focused on funding technologies and it often requires only a handful of board members from firms to approve the funding.
I argue that focusing on the speed of funding allocation and the amount of money received is the wrong way to think about how to speed up the research and innovation deemed necessary to respond to climate crises. Just as Peter discovered, more money does not equate to faster research. Of course, being able to hire more scientists and buy more equipment can hasten the pace of the work done on a daily basis, but overcoming massive technical challenges requires decades of slow research. Private industry has given the perception that innovation can happen quickly—but what they have actually done is built upon the decades of basic science work that has been facilitated by a government willing to spend billions of dollars on decades-long projects.
Speed and the Rise of Private Industry
The rise of private funding in industry is not a discrete phenomenon, but is rather part of the growth of neoliberal policies that have altered perceptions of who is considered the better funder for scientific breakthroughs (Mazzucato 2011). This is because: (1) the government is not seen as a wealth creator and is thus incapable of bringing a technology to market and (2) private industry is considered a wealth creator that is also efficient, fast-paced, and dynamic. The idea that private capital and industry exist best without government interference also happens to be neoliberalism’s ultimate lie. What many proponents of the private fusion industry fail to mention, however, is that private capital dries up when there are low returns in risky climate technology research (Gaddy et. al. 2017, 385-395). In contrast, governments are willing to take on such risk and invest in decades-long projects.
Neoliberal policies have greatly impacted the ways governments approach science funding (Lave, Mirowski, and Randalls 2010, 659-675). Because of fusion’s long research timelines, fusion has been, primarily, a publicly funded project since the 1920s. However, as of 2021, the US government is no longer the primary funder for fusion energy. The consequences of these cutbacks have been quite devastating on plasma physicists and have also motivated many of my interlocutors to seek out private funding.
For example, MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center experienced a sudden budget cut in 2013 and was shut down for almost a year, with the DOE pulling half of its funding for their reactor without an explanation (Vastag 2012). This led some of MIT’s professors to found Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS), a Bill Gates-backed private fusion start-up that has developed some promising results. CFS has since become a leader in the private fusion energy sector, raising $1.8 billion of funding in their Series B funding round in 2021 (CFS 2021).
However, CFS’s reactor design is not entirely a novel idea. Much of their reputation and subsequent support from fellow scientists and investors comes from CFS’s reliance on proven fusion technology. For example, CFS’s reactor design uses “the collective and proven knowledge of the world’s fusion programs, using well established plasma physics as well as cutting-edge tools (CFS).” They are referring primarily to ITER, an international fusion megaproject that was commissioned in 2007 and was built upon international collaborative fusion research that had begun in the late 1970s. CFS, one of the most promising fusion start-ups, is where it is today because of four decades of government-funded research. Government support is crucial in fusion energy research.
This political orientation towards speed in the face of climate change is not the first time the urgency for speedy research caused drastic changes within the science funding matrix in the US. In fact, the government has not always been seen as a hindrance to scientific research, especially in times of crisis. The most prominent example is WWII. During that time, the push for the Manhattan Project and the subsequent realization that the lack of a national science policy was harming the US created a new ecosystem of public science funding (Bush, 1945). It was during this post-WWII era where speed came to characterize expectations for science research. Speed, as argued by cultural theorist Paul Virilio, is a consequence of war. Speed is a militaristic drive that accelerates technological development made possible through the organization of government resources towards war efforts (Virilio 2006). Fusion energy, which has ties to the Manhattan Project, was initially also part of the arms race between Russia and the US.1
The acceleration of our world is not singular. Fusion energy research has been characterized by different orientations towards speed. On the one hand, there is urgency over runaway climate change. On the other, fusion energy’s legacy is built from WWII global acceleration. This relationship reflects the ways that climate change has exacerbated our desire for speedy technological breakthroughs. In borrowing from the historian Reinhart Koselleck, speed is a process through which “the past and future are relocated with respect to each other (Koselleck 2004, 4).” Perceptions of speed and the urgency for faster research is born out of our own social anxieties for the future as well as our conditions of knowledge. Impacted by neoliberal decision making, private industry has seemingly come to the forefront in fusion energy research, and is also seemingly poised to take on a massive role in other climate technologies as well (Jessop and Halal 2021). But this desire for speed erases the history of government funding in scientific breakthroughs. And this narrative also mispresents the reality of science research—that it is through small incremental advancements over decades that lead us to big results.
Thinking Beyond Speed
In speaking with Peter in our final interview together, I asked him to contemplate how we could better position funding from both the US government and private industry in advancing fusion energy. Peter reflected with a thoughtful tone on how we even got to a position where private industry is investing in fusion:
“You know, Alice, in the past, the government used to be the only funder of fusion energy and that was okay because we were quite far off from commercialization. And we are still, I think, in the early stages of commercialization, but that government funding is what got us here. It was through the decades of tiny advancements and the research of thousands of scientists that got us to a point where private industry is even interested.”
Peter’s words reveal the reality of science research and large scientific breakthroughs. They are not fast. And while many hope that fusion could arrive by 2030 (and it just might), that arrival did not happen because suddenly private industry decided to invest. Private industry has instead benefitted from almost a century of government funded research that has brought fusion to a point where private capital is interested in investing. Ignoring the significant role of government funding in science and technology research and development can leave fusion and other technologies without the necessary infrastructure required to advance knowledge.
Engaging with speed is an effort to understand how crisis futures come to ground themselves in the daily politics of science and technology research and development. Speed reveals itself in multiple registers: from policy decisions to the efforts made by lobbyists to the career decisions made by my interlocutors. It is important to ask how speed is a condition through which social responses to crises are made visible. In doing so, speed becomes a historical and cultural process through which understandings of capital, governance, and technological development are shaped. We, collectively, as anthropologists need a language to theorize the relationship between speed and public/private capital in relation to science funding. At stake is the future of not only fusion energy funding, but also how we shape the notion of climate crises and our responses to them more broadly.
Alice Chen is a PhD candidate in anthropology at University of California, Irvine. Her research is focused on fusion energy research and funding in the US, exploring the implications of the privatization fusion energy research and development in the US. She focuses on the relationship between her interlocutors’ sense of ethics and their profit making motives as they attempt to navigate a funding landscape in fusion energy that is increasingly defined not by government funding, but by private capital that prioritizes ethical investments.
1. Throughout the 50s and 60s, governments began declassifying fusion energy, and fusion research moved away from weapons research and into clean energy research.
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