Source: Forbes | Greg Satell | November 23, 2015

Ted Cruz wants to abolish the Department of Energy. Sarah Palin can’t decide. In 2008, she said that she wanted to get rid of it, but more recently she declared that she would like to run it and then abolish it. Eliminating a $27 billion agency is a big deal, so it makes you wonder what all the fuss is about.

On Cruz’s website he says we should, “cut off the Washington Cartel, stop picking winners and losers, and unleash the energy renaissance.” Palin says she thinks a lot about the department because, “energy is my baby: oil and gas and minerals, those things that God has dumped on this part of the Earth for mankind’s use.”

Those are strange objections, because they have very little to do with what the Department of Energy does. (It does not, as Palin implies, have anything to do with oil leases.) In fact, I think most would agree that the main activities of the agency—nuclear defense, scientific research and empowering innovation—are essential programs that we couldn’t do without.

Supporting Nuclear Defense

The biggest thing that the DOE does is nuclear defense, which makes up nearly two thirds of its total budget. This includes everything from managing our stockpile of nuclear weapons and providing the Navy with the reactors that power our submarines and aircraft carriers. It is also one of the key agencies involved with non-proliferation.

Clearly, these are important jobs and it’s hard to see how we could eliminate them. Nuclear security is certainly a crucial government function. Our Navy wouldn’t want to do without nuclear reactors powering its fleet and we need experts to help us monitor the nuclear activities of other nations (which is why Secretary Moniz played such a big part in the recent Iran talks).

Of course, some may argue that these functions could be done by other parts of the government. The Department of Defense could, in theory, manage our nuclear defense. Yet if so, it’s hard to see what’s being eliminated. Others many argue that the private sector is more efficient, but in the case of nuclear security, that’s just plain scary!

So at the very least, two thirds of the Department of Energy’s budget is off limits.

Big Science

The next big line item is science programs, which takes up nearly a quarter of the total DOE budget, or just over $5 billion. This encompasses legendary laboratories like Oak Ridge, Argonne, Fermilab and SLAC, just to name a few. These are crucial for maintaining our national scientific excellence.

Another DOE facility, Ames Laboratory, focuses on high speed computing and advanced materials. One of the projects it is working on is to find alternatives to the rare earth elements which we now depend on China for. And the DOE helped fund the Human Genome Project, which is now playing a central role in the fight against cancer.

Much like nuclear defense, it’s hard to see how we could eliminate these programs without doing immense harm to the country. Unless, of course, you want to eliminate science programs altogether, and I don’t hear anyone arguing for that. So we can consider roughly 80% of the DOE budget off limits.

Powering Innovation

Besides managing our nuclear arsenal and our major science labs, much of the DOE’s budget eventually shows up in innovations that benefit us everyday. For example, its research played a central role in initiating the shale gas boom that’s reducing our reliance on foreign oil. It also helps develop the lithium ion batteries that power our smartphones, computers and electric cars.

Even that hardly scratches the surface. From solid state lighting to modern refrigerator compressors and water heaters, DOE inventions can be found in every American home. Sure, it is private industry that brings those innovations to market, but it is research done at the DOE that makes them possible, which is why the agency consistently wins awards for innovation.

A more recent initiative is ARPA-E— based on DARPA, the agency that brought us the Internet. It provides grants to researchers to fund next generation energy projects that are still in the early stage. Although not every project is successful, even in its short history it has already been shown to spur private investment that far exceeds the initial grants.

Politicians like Ted Cruz mistakenly call these investments “picking winners,” but that’s a vast misconception. Certainly, no one would call the government’s development of the Internet “picking winners,” although clearly some firms benefitted more than others. The truth is that it has been our investment in science that has made us the exceptional nation.

To win the future, you have to invest in it. In the case of DOE science and research programs, that investment amounts to less that 0.2% of the federal budget.

Do We Really Want Government Out Of Our Lives?

Clearly, I can’t list everything the DOE does here, some of which like the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and managing electricity transmission lines is incredibly mundane, but it’s hard to see anything substantial that we would want to eliminate. For the most part, the calls to shutter the DOE seem to come out of a general desire to “get the government out of our lives.”

So let’s think about what that would look like. First, we would all have to get rid of our cellphones, which couldn’t function without the lithium-ion batteries I noted above. For that matter, we’d have to get rid of all computers, the development of which was funded by the government. And then there’s the Internet and GPS navigation.

Yet that doesn’t go nearly far enough. The NIH funds the bulk of early stage medical research, so most of our modern cures can be traced back to government funding. So do more prosaic conveniences, like the laser scanners that we see at grocery stores which wouldn’t be possible without research funded by the NSF.

It’s natural for people to want to go back to simpler times. The 1950’s, for example, seem like a romantic, golden age. But we should not forget that we were poorer, less educated and lived shorter lives than we do today.

Be careful what you wish for.