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infinite energy
Issue 59

Great, Not-So-Great, and Realistic
Expectations from the DOE Re-Review
Scott R. Chubb

The verdict is in, or is it? Has the process ended? Was New York Times reporter Kenneth Chang accurate when he stated, in a December 2 article, that "In a new review of cold fusion. . .the Department of Energy released a report yesterday that says the evidence remains inconclusive, echoing a similar report 15 years ago"? Does this mean that proposals for funding for cold fusion will be rejected without serious consideration by the DOE, in the future? Or, is this wrong: Will further changes take place that will reverse current DOE scientific policy, well after the initial re-review?

A closer look at what was said in the report, how it was phrased, and how scientific funding decisions are made in the DOE and in other government agencies suggests that such a change will occur in DOE policy, as a result of the re-review, and soon. The associated subtleties, however, have not been obvious. And a number of people involved with LENR research apparently view the report negatively.

Complicating the fact that it is relatively easy to gloss over important subtleties associated with funding in the recommendations provided by the DOE Report, concerning the re-review, is the fact that serious errors exist in some of the reviews that form the basis of the report. In particular, DOE program managers responsible for organizing the DOE re-review either were not aware of a number of misconceptions about the LENR field, and associated biases, or ignored them. In any case, this failure casts serious aspersions on the associated reviews of some of the participants. In particular, individuals knowledgeable about the LENR field certainly could question why the opinions of a number of reviewers, whose background exclusively in conventional nuclear physics (which is expected to create inherent biases against the idea of nuclear reactions occurring without high energy or momentum particles), should have been given equal credence and weight in the review process with individuals who do not share these biases.

In addition, as Mitchell Swartz has pointed out, the program managers responsible for the report failed, in their charge to reviewers about assessing "Low-Energy Nuclear Reactions" (LENR), to recognize subtleties associated with LENR. To suggest that these reactions are initiated with eV energies is a failure to understand the relevant dynamics and processes. In situations involving excess heat, macroscopic amounts of power (involving ~1019 -1021 eV/s) are used to initiate the reactions. How this power is distributed over the many particles that are involved and for how long is an open question, and within this context it is realistic to assume that (since particles do not fly away) the energy of individual particles does not exceed several eV. But many particles are involved, by necessity. A more appropriate charge would have been to ask: Does the experimental information suggest that LENR's are occurring, resulting in heat, through nuclear reactions, in a condensed matter environment in which no high energy particles are released. By using the alternative wording, in LENR initiated with eV energies (and by inference with a small number of particles), the DOE program managers responsible for the re-review have demonstrated a serious misunderstanding of the existing and relevant science.

Compounding these difficulties was a further problem: The use of inappropriate, and inaccurate, outdated information by reviewers to discredit results that were presented. In particular, a number of reviewers cited work by Douglas Morrison, and other (even more obscure) figures that have been viewed frequently by many mainstream scientists, who are ignorant of developments in the LENR field, as having participated in meaningful ways in the associated discourse. To set the record straight, beginning in 1991, at ICCF2, and subsequently, Douglas Morrison's involvement with the LENR field not only ceased to be scientific, his continued involvement became detrimental in the process of disseminating meaningful information about the field (as a consequence of his misrepresentation of the relevant science, in open, internet reports that he distributed to reputable people in the physics community). It is absolutely ludicrous that at this late date, the opinions of Douglas Morrison be cited as being relevant.

An important point is that further communication could (and should) have been used to avoid such unfortunate and misguided representations of the relevant science. This could have been avoided if, as opposed to a shot-gun approach in which reviewers of the presentations and information, which were provided by individuals involved with the LENR field, were given free reign to speak their opinions anonymously, alone, in the review process, an alternative procedure had been used, involving a more balanced scientific discourse. In particular, for example, presenters from the LENR field could have been allowed to respond to the criticisms made by the reviewers. Because this form of balance did not take place, serious misrepresentations (including the use of inappropriate, inaccurate references to individuals like Douglas Morrison) were allowed to take place.

For these reasons, from the outset the DOE program managers, responsible for identifying appropriate reviewers and using the information in their reviews to assess the field, were forced to deal with contentious, controversial issues that have marginal relevance. On the other hand, had an alternative debate (or lack of debate), in which the reviewers comments were subjected to criticism by the presenters, been allowed to take place, it may have been impossible for the DOE managers to have found a sufficient number of reviewers to participate in order to conduct the re-review.

This possibility of such a very real breakdown in the review process reflects an important reality: In situations involving people's jobs, money, careers, and expenditures of time, in situations involving controversial issues, the most "realistic expectation" is that any review (involving cold fusion, or otherwise) will be imperfect. Thus, although initially individuals involved with LENR research had "great expectations" for the DOE re-review and its potential impact on research in LENR, very soon afterwards the expectations of many about the process and its impact were "not-so-great." In fact, both expectations were wrong. From the outset, the outcome from the re-review probably should have been viewed with more "realistic expectations," based on the all-too-human possibility of faults in the review process.

A very good case can be made that had the individuals responsible for the re-review done their homework, some of these problems could have been avoided. However, as in every situation, involving money, careers and contentious issues, an equally good case can be made that realistically, the best of all possible situations resulted from the DOE re-review: a tepid, but vague, seemingly non-committal, endorsement that potentially will allow DOE program managers to fund LENR work, without being subjected to the restrictions that were responsible for the loss of funding, several years after the initial review in 1989. Within this context, it is fair to say, after the fact, that the most "realistic expectation" for the DOE re-review was met: that it be only a preliminary step in a more important process, in which bonafide funding and scientific scrutiny begin to take place, on an even playing field, in which previous biases, both for or against LENR results, are appropriately reviewed, discussed, and tested through open scientific exchange.

Part of the reason that the re-review inspired misgivings within the LENR community reflects emotional biases that have occurred as a result of past history. In particular, given the absurdly unscientific way that cold fusion has been treated in the popular press, by the American Physical Society, and by the DOE, it is easy to think at a superficial level that the "process" of changing existing views of cold fusion is over. Chang's use of statements like "the evidence remains inconclusive" and "echoing a similar report 15 years ago" might appear to mean that little will change or has changed, as a result of the re-review. But it is important to remember that although the initial, 15-year-old Energy Research Advisory Board (ERAB) report (cited by Chang) has been frequently cited as being a major reason for the lack of funding for cold fusion, in fact, the ERAB report itself was not negative; it was merely inconclusive, and the DOE did fund experimental work that was thought to be related to cold fusion, based on the ERAB report recommendations.

Specifically, the ERAB panel wrote the following: "there remain unresolved issues which may have interesting implications. The Panel is, therefore, sympathetic toward modest support for carefully focused and cooperative experiments within the present funding system." A significant point is that, in spite of the very narrow guidelines associated with this particular set of recommendations, the DOE program managers, at least for a while, did follow them by funding seemingly relevant work that appeared to be related to cold fusion. An important problem is that no firm rules were established for justifying continued support, as discretionary funding for new research by the DOE began to dry up.

An additional important point is that, in 1989, considerable confusion existed about cold fusion because most scientists believed not only that the Pons and Fleischmann (PF) experiments and the experiments by Steven Jones were related, but that both sets of cold fusion experiments had to be related to a colder version of conventional fusion. For this reason, when it became obvious that the heat measurements in the PF experiments could not be explained by the (high energy) fusion products that most physicists thought should be required, after a short time, the work by PF became discredited. But consistent with the recommendations of the ERAB panel, for several years DOE program managers did provide limited funding for work in areas related to carefully focused cooperative experiments (in particular, to Steven Jones' group and to his collaborators).

Had program managers at the DOE known then what is now known about the PF effect, as reflected in the comments by virtually all the reviewers in the re-review, funding of the kinds of excess heat experiments by PF would also have continued. In particular, in the executive summary, the authors of the DOE report, based on the re-review, cited "significant progress [being] made in. . .calorimeters" and stated that "the reviewers believed that this field would benefit from the peer-review processes associated with proposal submission to agencies and paper submission to archival journals."

Although superficially these recommendations seem to have only minor differences, the recommendation in the more recent report, "that this field would benefit from the peer-review processes. . .[of] proposal submission," from the earlier (ERAB) committee "sympathetic" endorsement of "modest support for. . .focused. . .cooperative experiments with the present funding system," should be viewed as being very different, in the context of decisions made by the DOE program managers for justifying future research. In particular, the explicit reference to "peer-review" in the context of proposal submission is very different from the vaguer phrasing "modest support. . .with the present funding system."

Here, the new report basically recommends that any program manager (from the DOE, or elsewhere) should treat cold fusion proposals on an equal, competitive footing, in relationship to any other proposal, and that the process be based on peer-review. The ERAB report states that only a limited amount of funding be provided (implicitly, non-competitively, and without peer-review,) and that the funding be provided, effectively, based on an amount that can be justified (at a discretionary level) within the context of existing funding levels.

Viewed in this way, the re-review is recommending that in the future, DOE managers accept proposals and allow them to be reviewed. Assuming that the associated review process involve genuine "peer-review," which requires that the evaluation be carried out by people who are familiar with the relevant field, implicitly this recommendation will lead to funding. As a consequence, although somewhat obscure and subtle, the associated recommendation implicitly calls for potential funding, based on merit. Because a bonafide LENR community does exist, the associated recommendation should lead to funding.

So, is the verdict in? Has the process ended? Was Kenneth Chang correct in implicitly equating the 2004 re-review to the 1989 ERAB Review? In fact, the answer to the first question, I would suggest, actually is that the verdict is in: future funding for cold fusion will take place, and probably very shortly. Through the process, eventually, scientific policy, at the DOE will be reversed. But this will take time. So, the process certainly has not ended, and it will continue. In the limited context associated with what is known about the relevant science, Kenneth Chang is marginally correct: many of the scientific mysteries that were present in 1989 linger. However, there are a number of important differences: 1) We now know the heat is a real effect; 2) Although the reviews were mixed about the fact that its origin is nuclear, the evidence is compelling that it is; 3) Compelling evidence also exists that either through alternative LENR or alternative forms of more conventional fusion, neutrons and charged particles can be released in experiments involving electrolysis of heavy water. Mainstream scientists debate these results because they have not paid attention to the evidence. One of my "realistic expectations," which is based on the wealth of experimental information, is that with time, this will change.

Related Links

May 22, 2005 More Response to the DOE Review (Charles Beaudette)

December 10, 2004 - DOE Cold Fusion Review Summary Posted Online
Read a summary of the DOE's December 2004 review of low-energy nuclear reactions

March 20, 2004 - U.S. Department of Energy Will Review 15 Years of "Cold Fusion" Excess Heat and Nuclear Evidence


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