In late 2005, Rep. Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., introduced a bill that would establish the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy (ARPA-E), modeled after the Defense Department’s DARPA. He was looking to create an agency that would fund and coordinate research to change the nature of America’s energy use. His goal was "to reduce the amount of energy the United States imports from foreign sources by 20 percent over the next 10 years.” But Gordon was at that time merely a ranking member of the Science Committee, and the bill died.
Today, Gordon is chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee, and he wasted no time re-introducing the measure, now H. R. 364, establishing the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy. It is, conveniently, referred to his own committee where it stands a good chance of making it to the House floor.
Gordon shares the view of many people that government must play a central role in changing the way energy is produced and consumed. In 2006, he wrote in The Hill:
Decades of energy research only pay off if truly innovative technologies come to fruition. Frankly, we’re still using technologies from the 19th and 20th centuries to address the problems of the 21st century. Replacing “traditional” energy sources requires an unprecedented basic research and technology-development effort, not the same conservative approach that has kept us where we are.
Gordon picked DARPA as a model because it was critical in expanding U.S. science and technology in the last century. Created in 1958 in response to the Soviet leap in manned space flight, DARPA played a funding and developmental role in an astonishing number of technological breakthroughs with civilian application, including: computer time-sharing; artificial intelligence, including voice recognition; the precursor of virtual reality; and perhaps most significant of all, ARPANET, which evolved into the Internet.
Although DARPA is funded by the Defense Department, it has considerable autonomy from the DoD. DARPA is a small, flexible organization that funds imaginative projects without clear application—advanced research, in other words. Today it doles out over $2 billion to projects in places like Massachusetts Institute of Technology and SRI that often have as many commercial uses as security ones.
Many of today’s IT chiefs, as well as probably most consumers, choose to believe that the modern computer industry was created by the genius of the marketplace. At this point, much of the development is private sector, but the entire information industry rests on a network of publicly financed and directed research.
And so it must be with energy development. The private sector by definition pays for research with a direct, and ideally rapid, return on investment. Moreover, such research is proprietary, hidden from public view. Then, there is the question about the seriousness of research conducted by the energy companies. If the management of Exxon-Mobil has a choice between pursuing a known technology that brought them $40 billion in profits last year and unknown technologies that may never pay off, it’s not too hard to see where their sympathies and attentions lie.
Taxpayer-funded research, on the other hand, can be broader and less focused, looking well beyond the next quarterlies. ARPA-E, if it materializes, would benefit existing and startup industries, as well as continuing research. And it can meet public standards rather than profit-motivated goals.
If anything, Gordon’s bill is too modest. It requests $300 million for fiscal 2008, making it a fraction of DARPA’s. Even its projected $915 million 2015 is still only half of the Defense-funded agency. But, according to Jeff Rickert of the labor-environmental group, Apollo Alliance, “ARPA-E is a good first step. It’s one of the few, and maybe the only, one of the hundreds of energy bills floating around Congress that has all its weight on publicly-funded research.”
If ARPA-E turns out anywhere near as successful as DARPA, then it will benefit the public. It deserves support.
| Thursday, February 8, 2007 2:13 PM