In a year ARPA-E, the newest part of the Department of Energy, has gone from barely having an office at DOE to hosting a glitzy and impressive summit this week: star speakers (The New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, GE's Jeffrey Immelt, and DOE Secretary Steven Chu), stimulating panels of experts, and huge catered lunches at a new Washington, D.C.-area convention center. On paper the 3-day meeting is aimed at bringing together scientists with the funding community to catalyze new efforts in energy research and development. These two groups include, primarily, the 37 winners of ARPA-E money, along with finalists and other interested scientists, and hundreds of venture capitalists, investment professionals, and entrepreneurs. Just as important is an unstated goal: give an agency which as of 3 years ago didn't exist a patina of legitimacy and, its leaders hope, permanence in a tough budget environment.
As the coming-out party for the fledgling agency got underway today at the Gaylord Convention Center in National Harbor, Maryland, ARPA-E Director Arun Majumdar took to the podium and declared the joint challenges of climate, energy security and economic growth "a sputnik moment" for the United States. But his speech had new details in addition to bombast.
Majumdar explained that ARPA-E hoped to sit between DOE's basic science offices and its mission-driven offices, which include providing renewable energy and capturing carbon from fossil fuel energy sources. "The pushers and the pullers," he called the two sides, since the first "push" new ideas without specific goals in mind and the latter "pull" scientists towards various technical problems like providing desalination at low energy cost. By funding risky stuff, Chu added, DOE hoped to emulate the Pentagon's DARPA agency, which he said "took high risks, [and] expected failures." ARPA-E program managers will serve 4-year terms, encouraging risk-taking and helping prevent stagnation.
To help guide the new agency, Majumdar said, he is setting up a "fellows" program to bring young scientists for 2 year stints to the agency to provide guidance. "They'll be what JASON is for DARPA," he said, referring to the secretive group of physicists that advise the government on defense matters. He also listed some innovative metrics the new agency will use to judge success, not just traditional measurements like number of patents or whether or not technologies achieve certain technical goals, but also how much funding companies could muster after the ARPA-E funds were rewarded and how many new companies are established. This morning Chu announced three new ARPA-E programs which will give out a total of $100 million in grants: research in intermittent energy storage, new power technologies, and advanced air conditioning approaches.
Under the Bush Administration, Congress authorized the agency but DOE refused to request any money for it; last year the agency began to spend the $400 million in stimulus funds that it had received. Obama requested $300 million for the agency for 2011, and Majumdar said he was "optimistic" that lawmakers would be supportive this year. But Chu was realistic, in his typical home-spun way, about the challenge facing Majumdar. "When you start a program and you ask for hundreds of millions of dollars it's just like this big piñata," or an easy target for cuts, he said of the realities on Capitol Hill.
The crowds here weren't the only indication of loads of interest among scientists. The 37 winner's of ARPA-E's first submission were chosen last summer from a whopping 3700 applicants. Officials announced today that ARPA-E's second solicitation—which focused on biofuels, carbon capture, and batteries—yielded 500 concept papers.