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FYI Number 109: August 30, 2006

Disagreement in House Science Committee Over ARPA-Energy Proposal

One of the few areas of disagreement during the House Science Committee's markup of H.R. 5656, the Energy Research, Development, Demonstration and Commercial Application Act of 2006, was over a proposal to authorize a Department of Energy ARPA-E. The establishment of an Advanced Research Projects Agency - Energy was recommended in the National Academy of Sciences report on American competitiveness, and is a component of S. 2917, the PACE - Energy Act which now awaits action on the Senate floor.

House Science Ranking Democratic Member Bart Gordon (D-TN) introduced legislation to authorize ARPA-E, and the Science Committee held a hearing on the initiative (see http://www.aip.org/fyi/2006/049.html.) Most witnesses supported this proposal, although there was concern about where funding would be drawn from to support its activities.

At the Science Committee markup, Gordon offered an amendment to H.R. 5656 to authorize ARPA-E. The bill called for the Energy Secretary to reach an agreement with the National Academies of Science to give the ARPA-E recommendation further study. Gordon's amendment failed by a voice vote.

There are several statements appearing in the committee's report reviewing the issues about whether an ARPA-E should be established. One is by House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY). The second are Ranking Member Gordon's remarks from the committee report's Additional Views section:

CHAIRMAN BOEHLERT:

"I appreciate what the gentleman [Rep. Gordon] is trying to do with this amendment, but I just am not prepared to support the creation of an ARPA-E at this point. I think that before we create a new government agency and allocate several billion dollars to it, we need to be more sure that the agency is necessary and set up in the right way to accomplish its goals.

"With you, I requested the Academy write the Gathering Storm report, and like you, I am generally a big fan of its conclusions. In fact, my colleagues are sick of hearing me talk about the American Competitiveness Initiative, which stems, in part, from the report. But the report was written on paper, not chiseled on stone tablets, and its proposals are rightly labeled `recommendations' not `commandments.'

"We asked that the report be done quickly, and it was, and the panel did not have as much experience or expertise, or as many studies to draw on, in the energy area as it did in some other realms. The ARPA-E recommendation was the most controversial one among the panelists themselves, I would add.

"And so, as I pointed out at our hearing in March, there are a lot of unanswered questions about ARPA-E. Is a lack of fundamental research our primary energy problem? If so, why couldn't it being handled by current Department of Energy (DOE) programs? And if those programs are off-track, how can we make sure that this program works differently? What should the relative priority for ARPA-E be, compared to other DOE programs, in allocating funding? Is DARPA a good analogue for the energy area, where the government is not a primary customer and price matters?

"What role should industry play in ARPA-E programs? What role should the National Labs play? To what extent will participation by industry or the labs enable the program to be both pathbreaking and market-oriented? Should we be focusing more instead on applied research or tech transfer or providing more capital for commercialization? What good will any additional research program do if we don't take the policy steps we need to create a market for new technologies?

"These are pretty fundamental questions, and we need more analysis to have trustworthy answers to them.

"So the bill language says, ‘Let's go back to the source.' Let's have the Academy pull together a panel with the right expertise to sort through these questions, and then let's see where we end up. As I said in my opening statement, we'll still be funding plenty of research in the meantime."

RANKING MEMBER GORDON:

"Section 15 of the bill as amended calls for the Secretary, through the National Academies of Science, to revisit the recommendation to create an Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy (ARPA-E) set out in the October 2005 National Academies Report "Rising Above the Gathering Storm," and report back to Congress on the findings and recommendations. It is important to compile a body of information and guidance to aid in the deliberative process of creating an ARPA-E. But reports are not action, and giving the Secretary another year to think about it will get us no closer to solving looming energy problems.

"The language in H.R. 5656 raises valid questions about systemic gaps in the current energy R&D structure and how new efforts might augment the work in existing programs. I believe there is a fundamental disconnect between basic, generic energy research conducted largely by universities and government entities, and actual energy technology commercialization which is the prerogative of private industry. Basic research done in hopes of providing breakthroughs for future technology development entails high cost and a risk of failure that all but the largest private companies are unwilling to assume. ARPA-E is the third party that assumes a substantial part of that risk.

"Program managers are the heart of DARPA. ARPA-E should have similar flexible authority to hire the right personnel, for specified tenures, that are conversant in both basic research and technology commercialization. Guided by broad strategic challenges, these program managers must be able to identify scientific discoveries, know how these can be translated into breakthroughs for energy technology, and then lay the groundwork between these areas. As a bare-bones organization with no in-house research capabilities of its own, Program Managers will look to government labs, universities and industry as operative components of the mission. There is no evidence that a similar integrative capability for energy technology exists anywhere in the government or industry.

"DARPA is an organizational model; not a rigid framework that ARPA-E must adhere to. Indeed, the mission of ARPA-E and the structure and culture of the Department of Energy may prove parts of the DARPA model to be inapplicable. Therefore, I believe it is unwise for Congress to be highly prescriptive here. Though, there are elements of the DARPA model that are key to the success of ARPA-E, and one in particular that diverges from the recommendations in the National Academies report. The Director of ARPA-E should answer directly to the Secretary of Energy, not to the Undersecretary for Science. Just as DARPA remained independent of the service branches, the role of ARPA-E would be compromised if it is beholden to the research needs of any one particular office within DOE. ARPA-E will be successful if it is an agile, risk-tolerant, malleable organization with the resources, authority and flexibility to respond quickly to great technical challenges within the long-term mission of building a more energy self-reliant nation."

In his prepared remarks at the markup hearing, Gordon said to Boehlert: "Mr. Chairman, with the Senate also including an ARPA-E provision in their competitiveness package, this will not be the last word you hear on ARPA-E and I look forward to future debate in hopes that I might change your mind on this one."

Richard M. Jones
Media and Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics
fyi@aip.org
301-209-3095

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