Congress Dubs Energy Hubs Mostly Duds

Eli is a contributing correspondent for Science magazine.

The U.S. Congress is giving Energy Secretary Steven Chu enough money to launch three of his beloved Bell Labs—fewer than half of his request.

In his proposed budget for 2010, Chu wanted $480 million to start eight Energy Innovation Hubs, or "Bell Lablets," as he called them, to stimulate research in areas ranging from solar energy to new materials for the electric grid. Each would receive $35 million to get started, and $25 million more in each of the following 4 years.

Last week Congress poured semi-cold water on the idea. Conferees to the Energy and Water spending bill approved funding for three of the centers, two in energy efficiency and renewable energy and one in nuclear energy.

Its skepticism was no surprise, having been included this summer in reports accompanying the spending bills in the House of Representatives and Senate (House, Senate versions). In August, Science reporter Jeffrey Mervis described how Chu admitted to a mediocre job of selling the idea and overcoming congressional concerns that the concept was poorly thought out and not well-coordinated with other energy research at the Department of Energy. House appropriators were particularly unkind to the idea, noting:

A new set of centers with overlapping research goals risks adding confusion and redundancy to the existing fleet of research and development initiatives.

From Mervis's story on how Chu envisioned the centers working à la Bell, where:

 ... he'd like to emulate theold phone monopoly's wildly productive approach to supportingbasic research. The idea is to identify an important problemand then work relentlessly at finding a solution, testing amultitude of ideas until one succeeds. In contrast, he says,most scientists funded by federal research agencies are told"you've got 3 years to get refunded, so that's how you work."The result, he says, is too often incremental progress on low-riskideas.

DOE is already following the basic approach with its three bioenergy research centers, which have 5-year, $125 million budgets and big interdisciplinary teams at the helm.

And from another story in which Chu described the concept, citing one of the bioenergy centers:

Chu also talked about modeling energy research laboratories on Bell Labs. He described a management structure where labs are run by the top practicing scientists whose intimate knowledge allows them to quickly deploy resources and help researchers connect with colleagues. He also described a place so rich in ideas that people are not obsessed with secrets.

He cited the Joint BioEnergy Institute as an example of a “Bell Lab-let”. The Institute is a partnership of three national laboratories and three universities focused on developing biofuels. The lab is headed by Jay Keasling, a UC Berkeley professor, Berkeley National Lab scientist and pioneer in the field of synthetic biology. “Great science is going to come out of this,” said Chu.

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