As part of my exploration of the lack of policy supporting production of rare nuclear medicine isotopes, I touched on the problem of managing scarce minerals that are important to many critical technologies – mainly electronics and electric car batteries. Legislation on restarting the U.S. capacity to generate medical isotopes is stalled in the Senate after passing the House. Unfortunately, similar legislation focused on scarce minerals may face the same fate. It passed the House in late September, and will likely wait out the rest of the current session of Congress not moving forward.
The bill, sponsored by Representative Dahlkemper of Pennsylvania, focuses on two different actions to better address potential shortages of rare earth minerals (defined in Section 2 of the bill, and found in the two rows of the periodic table separated from the rest of the chart). One is to establish a rare earth minerals program at the Department of Energy to examine all aspects of the ‘life cycle’ of these minerals. In other words, how to improve the location, extraction, use, and recycling of these minerals. The other is a series of amendments to the pre-existing laws on mineral management. Many of them are technical corrections or updates reflecting changes in government since the laws were passed. However, the law would eliminate the National Critical Materials Council, established in 1984 and functionally abolished in 1993. (Before you scratch your head on that last sentence, keep in mind that the Office of Technology Assessment is still part of U.S. law, it just has no budget.)
That resource management issues are coming up in areas outside of what might be considered the usual suspects (gas, oil, food, water) have re-emphasized for me that what is typically considered science and technology policy is still viewed pretty narrowly, even for those in the thick of it. Few seem to think of it outside of the issues (science and technology budgets, university research, ‘R&D’ in general) and agencies that get the most attention – the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy and the Department of Defense. I’d love for that to change, and maybe my scribblings can help with that.