New Director for U.S. Energy Department's Mad Science Wing

Energy efficiency will likely be the focus

Photo: Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

On 18 September, President Barack Obama chose Arunava Majumdar as the director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy (ARPA-E), the U.S. Department of Energy’s new research incubator. Majumdar is currently director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s Environmental Energy Technologies Division and a professor at the University of California, Berkeley. His appointment provides clues to the future direction of an agency that many hope will drive innovation in energy technology and one that has been, until now, famously rudderless.

ARPA-E’s goal is to create game-changing energy technologies from high-risk research gambles. The agency is fashioned after the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency, a model that has already been copied by other U.S. government arms to create IARPA (intelligence) and HSARPA (Homeland Security). The director reports only to the energy secretary and is supported by a lean core staff (capped at 120) that’s directly responsible for all funding. Its proponents, therefore, hope ARPA-E will be able to award grants quickly and free of bureaucratic delays.

The agency was created by law in 2007 but languished for two years as funding and interest lagged. But then incoming President Obama tapped Nobel Prize–winning physicist Steven Chu to lead DOE. Chu, who coauthored the 2005 report that kindled ARPA-E’s creation, was responsible for selecting its director. He took his time with it: ”They were really careful about making sure the right person was at the helm,” says Chris King, a staffer in the House Committee on Science and Technology.

Majumdar will not start his job until he is confirmed by the Senate, but some experts say his first day can’t come soon enough. The agency has already taken some heat for starting without a leader. Two months after the administration funded the fledgling agency with US $415 million, it solicited research proposals, and 3500 poured in. But the agency had no director and only a handful of employees, so volunteers—technical reviewers recruited from government, industry, national labs, and universities—stepped in to choose 200 proposals to fund.

Their decisions drew much ire from rejected researchers, but not everyone agrees that the process was flawed. ”ARPA-E is already proving that it is not mired in bureaucracy and bogged down in process,” King says.

In the same way, Majumdar’s nomination bodes well for the agency, says King. ”He knows DOE well enough to know what ARPA-E needs [for it] to be different from DOE.”

IEEE Fellow Meyya Meyyappan of NASA Ames Research Center, in California, says that Majumdar is interested in energy efficiency research and alternative energy storage approaches. The Ames senior scientist adds that the director-designate wants to make the United States energy self-sufficient. Meyyappan, who collaborated with Majumdar in 2006, calls him a ”brilliant” mechanical engineer and ”a natural choice to head ARPA-E.”

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