Energy is the “biggest single challenge for the next few decades,” but because fewer graduates are entering the field, the next generation needs to be inspired with a sense of mission to “save the world,” a Nobel Prize winning scientist said Tuesday during a Global Energy Management Institute (GEMI) forum at the University of Houston.

Dr. Richard E. Smalley, a Rice University professor who founded the Rice Quantum Institute in 1979, often speaks of the need to encourage more students to enter the field of science and technology. However, the 1996 Nobel Prize winner for his work in chemistry said today a crisis looms because of a lack of new participants entering science and engineering fields.

Smalley shared a morning panel with other energy experts, including former Shell Oil executive Lane Sloan, now executive director of UH-GEMI and Dr. Michael Economides, a UH chemical engineering professor at the day-long symposium on energy careers. The symposium was set up to address the shrinking employee demographics and look for possible solutions through the role of education, government and industry.

“We know we have to do this…revolutionize energy,” Smalley said. “At a minimum we need 10 terawatts (150 MMboe/d) from some new clean energy source by 2050. For worldwide peace and prosperity we need it to be cheap.”

But the numbers of new graduates entering the energy field are discouraging, he noted. In the United States, PhD degrees in physical science and engineering have fallen below 5,000 a year; for all fields of science and engineering, except for psychology and social sciences, there were less than 10,000 degrees awarded in 2002. Asian citizens, meanwhile, are approaching 22,000 degrees a year in all fields of science and engineering.

To find energy alternatives, Smalley said, “we simply cannot do this with current technology. Physical scientist production in the U.S. is not keeping up with [gross domestic production] even though the physical sciences are the basis of most wealth creation. We need a new Sputnik event to inspire U.S. citizens into the physical sciences and engineering. And we have one: 9/11.”

Sloan said the public perceives that energy companies are stuck in the “smokestack culture” of the industrial revolution. The average age of the domestic oil and gas workforce is 50 years old, and by 2010, nearly 40% will be retirement age. However, the “need for energy is growing” even though there is no new generation of talent to carry the industry forward.

“With almost half of the domestic oil and gas work force facing retirement at decade’s end and no new source of talent ready to follow, the energy industry is threatened by a looming crisis,” Sloan said. “On the surface, public perceptions are filled with images of rising and falling gasoline prices, manipulation and blackouts. A closer examination of the industry will reveal a greater problem — that is, who will lead the industry into the future?”

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