A bill passed by the U.S. Congress last month and signed into law by President George W. Bush on 9 August creates a special R&D unit within the Department of Energy modeled on the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Like its Defense Department analog, Advanced Research Projects AgencyEnergy, or ARPA-E, is meant to engender a research elite to develop high-risk, high-reward technologies, but specifically in energy. Critics of the legislation complained that the proposed agency lacked a clearly defined mission, established sources of funding, and the ability to put its findings into practice. Supporters have countered that without a new agency in place, none of those issues can even be addressed.
The idea for ARPA-E came from a 2005 National Academy of Sciences report called ”Rising Above the Gathering Storm.” The report criticized the state of American competitiveness in the global market, specifically condemning government inattention to baseline research and development. The U.S. Government Accountability Office found that federal investment in energy technology R&D has declined by 85 percent since 1978, when adjusted for inflation. The report spurred House Science Committee chairman Bart Gordon (D''Tenn.) and other political heavyweights to sponsor legislation that would create a DARPA-like agency.
DARPA--famously credited with helping develop the Internet, weather satellites, and GPS--was established in 1958 as part of the U.S. response to the Soviet Union’s launch of the Sputnik satellite. The agency is a svelte 240 employees within the DOD behemoth. Legislators envision ARPA-E as a similarly small, autonomous agency whose personnel will be replaced about every four years to discourage bureaucratic lethargy. Like DARPA, ARPA-E will fund both university and industry programs. The agency’s director will bypass all the usual protocols to report directly to the Secretary of Energy. Program managers will be given a great deal of autonomy to jump-start promising projects and terminate failing ones just as quickly.
Critics like David Goldston, a former staff director of the House of Representatives Science Committee, are not impressed. He believes that ARPA-E is popular just because the idea is visible, not because of its intrinsic merits. Critics say four major questions about ARPA-E remain unanswered:
Is a new program for energy research and development necessary? Is DARPA really the best model? How can ARPA-E’s mission succeed when the means have not been provided, in the form of money or the ability to turn its findings into new regulations? What specific problems will ARPA-E try to solve in order to reduce foreign energy dependence?
Is a new program for energy research and development necessary?
Is DARPA really the best model?
How can ARPA-E’s mission succeed when the means have not been provided, in the form of money or the ability to turn its findings into new regulations?
What specific problems will ARPA-E try to solve in order to reduce foreign energy dependence?
Testifying at the first of many hearings on the ARPA-E bill, former DOE advisor Melanie Kenderdine, now an associate director at the MIT Energy Initiative, said that ARPA-E’s objective is not easy to distinguish from that of the DOE’s Office of Science, which funds basic research across a broad array of fields. But House Science staffer Christopher King, who worked on the ARPA-E legislation, argues that little of that office’s research has energy technology applications.