Friday, February 24, 2006

Want a Manhattan Project? Take a Number

It seems that everyone these days is calling for new Manhattan Project.

I'll bet you've heard these cries from people looking for a 'new energy economy' or something related -- maybe fuel cell development, or a serious dent in global warming.

If you live in the United States you have almost certainly caught some other politically-charged calls for Manhattan Projects in recent years: to construct defenses against bioterror, bird flu, or SARS; to improve the quality of our nation's schools; to protect against cyberwarfare; to increase broadband internet penetration.

If you Google around for a little bit, you'll find plenty more Manhattan manifestos: to conquer the diseases of the poor; to clean up the waste from the original Manhattan Project; to build the first space elevator; to create the first nanoassembler; to cure aging; to create strong artificial intelligence; to create "global peace and prosperity"; to develop something called "intimate surveillance"; and, perhaps most esoterically of all, to "do away with the conventional divisions between the natural and social sciences and humanities."

But if you're waiting in line for your own Genuine Manhattan Project, be warned: A Manhattan Project ain't what it used to be, if it ever was.

The Numbers

The total cost of the Manhattan Project is usually estimated at 2 billion war-time dollars. Depending on how you draw the lines, this total was run up over four to six years, starting as early as 1940 and continuing to the first bombs dropped in 1945. 2 billion dollars sounds like a lot of money, and it is. But to put it in perspective, this was only about 6 hundredths of a percent of the 3.3 trillion spent by the US on the war.

Adjusted for inflation, that 2 billion would be about 22.5 billion in today's dollars, which also sounds like a lot, but is only about the size of our annual Department of Energy budget. That's only 4.5 billion a year for five years, about what we currently spend on the combined pleasures of bagged salads and used books. It's about $4.50 for every VISA card in circulation.

This doesn't seem like such a huge deal to me. I'm certainly not seeing visions of a nation with radically redirected priorities at such a low price -- to the dismay of many pundits, I'm sure.

Perhaps it's better, then, to look at the price of the Manhattan Project as a percentage of the Gross Domestic Product of the time. This would be a more realistic measure of national sacrifice. The US GDP skyrocketed during the war years, but so did Project expenditures. My calculations suggest that we can average out the Manhattan Project as costing a quarter of one percent of the national GDP for five years.

A New Unit

So, let me now propose a new functional unit, the MP, that will do for 'cost to the nation' what the LOC* (Library of Congress) does for 'quantity of data'*.

Let one MP equal one quarter of one percent of the US GDP for five years.

*One LOC is said to equal 20 terabytes (but not without debate).

One MP is far more than our earlier 25 billion dollar figure in today's much larger economy. A quarter of a percent of our 12 trillion dollar GDP comes out to 30 billion dollars; projecting for rises in GDP this would total 175 billion for the next five year period.

But still, we need perspective.

30 billion a year is less than a tenth of what we spend servicing the national debt. It's less than six percent of our defense budget. It is about one 75th of the total US budget.

The five-year total for one MP today would likely be about 600 dollars for every man, woman, and child in the country-- a figure which finally brings the number home enough to feel. But, in practice, when the government goes looking to fund a new program, Manhattan or otherwise, politics necessitates hiding the cost in some combination of sources that includes corporate taxes, royalty assessments, re jiggering of existing budgets, and new treasury bonds (more debt). So even though you pay it, you don't quite feel it.

So, is an MP a lot of money or not?

Well, it is, and it isn't.

The MP, applied

Many talk about the Manhattan Project as a research project, but it was really more of a massive industrial engineering project that happened to depended on new research. At its peak in 1945, the Manhattan Project employed some 130,000 people, but only a small fraction of these were researchers. Most were employed in the many stages of the nuclear fuel processing and enrichment chain, an entirely new industry that had to be built from scratch in total secrecy -- with all the extra expenses one would expect from this.

Not only would it have been overkill, it would have been impossible to spend an MP on just nuclear research during the war . There were only so many scientists to go around, and too many other areas needed their attention.

It would be similarly impossible, or at least foolhardy, to spend an entire MP on research for any specific project today. Let's try a scenario.

An MP for Research

Consider what would happen if, as some have suggested, we spent an MP to develop a fuel cell that was both efficient and affordable enough for widespread use in automobiles and other products.

If the government chose to start or grow an in-house program, the first thing they would do would be to hire the most qualified people they could, by offering them more money than they are currently making. Those most qualified would be those already working on fuel cell technology. All we will have done at this point is increase the average salary of fuel cell scientists and changed the bank account numbers on the checks.

Next, the project would begin hiring researchers from related fields and bringing them up to speed on the fuel cell problem. This increases the total number of fuel cell researchers, but at the expense of other projects that must now, incidentally, pay more for their researchers. The expanding fuel cell project inflates the cost of research everywhere.

(This might just encourage more people to become scientists instead of, say, lawyers or executives. This might be a good thing. But since the fuel-cell quest is billed as a Manhattan Project -- a five-year crash program -- it's unclear as to whether students would see rosy long-term prospects in science.)

Our in-house project is now swollen with huge numbers of scientists working as closely as they can. On the one-hand, they are sharing much more information than they were while working in the R&D labs of competing corporations. On the other hand, they are losing productivity to ego battles, too-many-cooks syndrome, and an intellectual monoculture. Risky alternative approaches to fuel cells are discouraged in favor of the organization's orthodox angle.

By the end of the five years, the team would probably succeed in their mission. But at what cost? The inefficiencies of cramming combined with the opportunity cost of research deferred. Who knows how many lives might have been saved by projects left waiting by researchers who had been sucked into the 175 billion dollar cash cow that was the Fuel Cell Manhattan Project? Sure, you might save more lives in the long run by getting fuel cells out there sooner, but it's awfully hard to say. And it will be impossible to say that a different but equally viable cell -- or even some non fuel-cell alternative --would not have been developed in the same time period, in the absence of the Project.

The closest thing to a research MP that I can think of right now is ITER, the international project to test the feasibility of a commercial-scale power generation via tokamak-style fusion reactor. Despite having a large physical engineering requirement on top of the heavy research budget, ITER is currently projected to cost a total of only 10 billion dollars. Even if overruns take it to 20 billion (a not unlikely scenario), that will only total about .11 MP.

The lesson? Unless your pet research project is very broad in scope, and can be distributed among many different fields -- something like SENS, the project to defeat physical aging -- an MP is way too much money, and would ultimately carry too many hidden costs. Asking for such an absurd sum is surely counterproductive to your cause.

But what if yours is also a massive civil engineering project? Is an MP still too much?

An MP for Civil Engineering

Let's suppose we've decided to spend an MP to create a 'hydrogen economy'. Advanced fuel cells are an obvious starting place, and we've already concluded that an MP is way too much to spend on just this, so we'll have plenty of money left over. We're also going to need fuel tanks for dense, safe hydrogen storage. That's another big research project, but probably no larger than the fuel cell one, so we still have plenty of our MP left to spend -- let's say 80 percent.

So we'll move on to the hydrogen infrastructure. I'm guessing that .8 MP will be more than enough to retrofit our nation's approximately 170000 fueling stations to safely pump hydrogen. It might even be enough to start on the network of tanks and pipelines needed to handle the new fuel. But I doubt it would be enough to finish it.

And we haven't even started on the hydrogen production infrastructure. We have to figure out what combination of facilities to make, then build them, whether these be be next-generation high-temperature nuclear plants, genetically-tweaked algae, solar 'cracking' of water molecules, the reprocessing of fossil fuels, something we've not yet thought of, or simply industrial-scale water electrolysis using our existing power grid. This production infrastructure could easily cost a few MP all by itself.

(We won't, but at this point we are in a position to consider just how many tens or hundreds of MP it would cost to make a real dent in global warming by spreading this new energy infrastructure around the world...)

The moral here is that for your project with a large civil engineering component, you are likely to need much more than an MP to get the job done. You might, instead, ask for one or more PAs (A Project Apollo is equal to three tenths of one percent of GDP for ten years). More realistically, consider breaking your cause down into the smallest sub-projects that can be seen as independently valuable, and seek funding for some of those instead.

(I should note that there are some "smaller" civil engineering projects that may, in fact, fit easily within the bounds of a single MP. These include the Space Elevator, estimated to cost 0.23 MP for the first useful 91,000 km tether, with subsequent cables costing closer to 0.08 MP. )

The Bottom Line

The original Manhattan Project was expensive, but not nearly as expensive as our gut reaction today would suggest. Pundits use "Manhattan Project" as a clarion call for new national priorities and collective sacrifice, but a single MP may not actually qualify as such.

Nevertheless, it would not take too many simultaneous MPs to knock the wind out of our economy. With so many different calls for Manhattan Projects, we must be judicious in the asking and granting of funds. It helps to know that research projects probably overstate their needs when they cry for an MP, while projects with civil engineering objectives may tend to understate -- even wildly so.

As a unit of cost, the MP may prove useful for helping people wrap their heads around really large expenditures, letting them more intuitively tell the difference between a merely very expensive project and an astronomically pricey one.

In any case, if people are going to keep asking for Manhattan Projects, it makes sense to quantify the term.


Blogger Brian Dunbar said...

I note with pleasure that a number of private projects can fall handily within the realm of an MP. That is a corporation - or consortia - could finance an MP-sized project.

Fascinating. The only problem (well not the only one) is to round up the talent to take on the project.

2:07 AM  

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