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ARPA-E successful in short term, needs longer life

June 15, 2017
By: Ellen Marrison

Although it has been slated for elimination under the president’s proposed budget, the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) program is making progress toward achieving its statutory mission and goals, and it “cannot reasonably be expected to have completely fulfilled those goals given so few years of operation and the size of its budget.” That is among the findings released this week by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) in its assessment of ARPA-E. The project was overseen by the Board on Science, Technology, and Economic Policy (STEP) and was tasked with assessing ARPA-E’s progress toward achieving its statutory mission and goals, and determining whether it is on a trajectory to achieve them. In short, the answer is that it is.

Congress established ARPA-E in 2009 to “enhance the economic and energy security of the United States through the development of energy technologies” that were to result in the reduction of energy imports, energy-related emissions, and greenhouse gases, and improve the energy efficiency of all economic sectors. It was also charged with ensuring that the U.S. maintains a technological lead in developing and deploying advanced energy technologies. The mandated study, An Assessment of ARPA-E, includes both an operational and technical assessment, as well as lessons learned that may apply to other Department of Energy programs, and factors that “Congress should take into account in determining the agency’s future.”

Because the development of new technologies from initial discovery to market deployment can take several decades and the study period only encompasses the first six years of the program, there was little data to determine the impact on energy technologies or the sector as a whole. However, some intermediate outcomes were already evident. For instance, half of the funded technologies have published results, about 13 percent have obtained patents, and one quarter of the supported project teams or technologies have received follow-on funding for continued work, the study found. Yet assessing the program was difficult because of the lack of data on what was intended as a long-term project.

“ARPA-E was expressly created to achieve long-term environmental, security, and competitiveness goals. It was structured to fund and manage research and development (R&D) undertaken by entities other than the agency rather than undertaking its own R&D activities. Because the agency is tasked with seeking out transformational technological advances, it has necessarily utilized novel operational benchmarks to try to accomplish its goals,” the summary findings state.

The report emphasizes that even though sufficient time has not elapsed to truly judge its effectiveness, it is clear that it is not failing and not in need of reform. “In fact, attempts to reform the agency — such as applying pressure for ARPA-E to show short-term successes rather than focusing on its long-term mission and goals — would pose a significant risk of harming its efforts and chances of achieving its mission and goals,” it says.

The committee studying ARPA-E formulated 14 recommendations to help strengthen and build upon the program’s success. It highlighted five of those recommendations as key points. Three of the those reflect how “ARPA-E has internalized the principles of an innovative culture, dynamic leadership, and program director autonomy,” which has supported the program’s vitality and allowed it to execute its mission and goals. Giving its program directors wide authority to take risks and develop new programs with the potential to be transformative was identified as a “defining organizational feature that can contribute to the agency’s ability to achieve its statutory mission and goals, and helps to distinguish ARPA-E from other public funding initiatives for energy R&D.”

Being able to invest in the “off-roadmap” opportunities that private firms and other funding agencies overlook is an important element in achieving its mission, the study found. It recognizes the value in knowing that many of its projects may only produce “valuable knowledge, including knowledge of research pathways that should not be pursued further, instead of commercialized products.” That focus should be maintained, the report urges, along with the culture that allows it to pursue high-risk, but potentially transformative technologies. “ARPA-E should continue to balance its overall portfolio between technologies that appear to have the potential to be transformative and other valuable opportunities that are being ignored.”

The study argues ARPA-E has had a positive effect on other programs within DOE as well. An example is the way the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy has incorporated several elements of ARPA-E’s approach into the management of its programs, including using workshops to define a program and early termination of underperforming projects.

The complete list of findings and recommendations is available in the study, and the committee conducting the study noted that its findings “should be helpful to Congress as it considers ARPA-E’s future.” The authors note, “ARPA-E has the ability to make significant contributions to energy R&D that likely would not take place absent the agency’s activities.” 

arpa-e, fy18 budget, energy, r&d, dept of energy