House and Senate lock horns over Arpa-E future

The House of Representatives and the Senate are in a tug-of-war over the future of the United States Department of Energy’s high-risk, high-reward research agency Arpa-E. 

The Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy incubates renewable energy projects, however, the House Budget Committee has scrapped it from the fiscal year 2018 budget as part of cuts to the DoE budget.

In its budget document, the House called the agency’s mission a “misuse of federal research dollars” and demonstrative of the Obama administration’s “crony capitalism that picks winners and losers in support of its ‘green energy’ agenda”.

In contrast, the Senate has allocated $330 million for the agency in 2018, an 8 per cent increase from the previous year.

The House and Senate will now have to vote on their appropriations bills and reconcile differences before passing the budget to the president who will sign it into law.

Although the US fiscal year begins on 1 October, lawmakers have already voted to extend 2017 spending levels until 8 December to give themselves more time to resolve their differences.

The idea for Arpa-E was proposed by the administration of George W Bush, but the agency was formally established at the start of Barack Obama’s first term in 2009. It aims to fund more risky research ideas, for example those that may not pass peer review from a conventional public funder.

However, president Donald Trump and other Republican lawmakers have criticised it on the grounds that such funding should come from private companies and not from the state.

An evaluation report from the National Academy of Sciences, published on 13 June, found that Arpa-E was making progress, but that its funded projects needed more time to bear fruit. Such a tentative conclusion probably gave House Republicans an additional reason not to back it.

Louis Schick, founding partner of the private equity firm NewWorld Capital Group and a member of the NAS review panel said: “They [Arpa-E] appear to have done an extraordinary job, but given the nature of the work, it’s too early to judge whether these things will be transformational”. He added: “But they did some really cool things, just like they were asked to do.”

In 2010, Willem Vermaas, a professor at the school of life sciences in Arizona State University, received a $6.8m grant from Arpa-E for his project “Turning Bacteria into Fuel”. The concept was to direct photosynthetic microorganisms to produce liquid fuels directly from solar energy. Although Vermaas’s project did not lead to a marketable product, he said that there was no grant agency that worked like Arpa-E.

“If you look at some of the projects it funded, there have been some real success stories,” said Vermaas. “For us having one package deal for everything integrated would be extremely difficult to come by if it wasn’t for Arpa-E.”

Story published on Research Europe, September 27 2017

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