Probably not, as I argue in my Bloomberg column. One problem is that advance market commitments work best when the output is well-defined, more or less homogeneous, and to be distributed according to very clear principles (one shot in the arm for everybody!). You can’t quite hand out green batteries or small nuclear reactors on the same basis. There is a case for subsidizing those, but not necessarily through advance purchase methods. Here is another part of the column:
Operation Warp Speed was also made easier by the internalization of vaccine research within companies or alliances of companies. The pre-purchase agreement limits risk, and within that framework the companies face strong competitive incentives to create a successful product. In the meantime, the work is removed from the public eye and debate, and at the end there is a definitive yes or no decision from the FDA. It is hardly simple, but it could be a lot more complicated.
In contrast, building a new energy infrastructure requires the cooperation of many companies and institutions, including local governments and regulators. One company can’t simply do everything (recall that the attempts of Alphabet to redesign part of Toronto as a new tech-based city met with local resistance and were ultimately put aside). The greater the number of institutions involved, the slower things get. Note that most of those institutions will not be getting pre-purchase funds from the federal government and they will face their usual bureaucratic and obstructionist incentives. When it comes to green energy policy, there are still too many veto points.
A striking feature of vaccine development is just how few social goals are involved. A vaccine should be safe, effective and easy to distribute. In broadly similar fashion, the highly successful Manhattan Project of the 1940s also had a small number of goals, namely a working and deliverable atomic bomb. When it comes to energy, there are already too many goals, and additional ones are often added: job creation, better design and community aesthetics, reductions in secondary pollution, regional economic benefits, and so on.
When I explain Fast Grants to people, and how it worked, it is always striking to me which part of the explanation they understand least. Everybody gets “we had a preexisting team in place, ready to handle accounting, recordkeeping, and payments.” Hardly anyone understands — really understands — “the program has two goals: supporting quality research projects that will feed into stopping Covid, and speed.” On one hand, it sounds self-evident to them, but on the other hand I don’t think they realize how much the intellectual infrastructure of the project really is defined by those goals and no others. Nothing about meeting payroll, or pursuing other meritorious social goals, or getting grant or donor renewal, or raising the stature of the program in the biomedical community, or…? What you choose not to pursue is one of the most radical steps you can take, and often it is so radical that other people don’t even grasp or notice it. They just don’t see you “not doing something.” That can be a good way to innovate!
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