Energy agency to focus on cutting-edge research

Agency would be charged with investigating "high risk, high reward" energy technology.

The political battle may be over, but another one looms over whether the Energy Department will get the money for a cutting edge energy research agency modeled after the Defense Department agency that invented the Internet.

Just before leaving for their August break, the House and Senate approved H.R. 2272, competitiveness legislation that would authorize $300 million to start up the Advanced Research Projects Agency -- Energy. President Bush is scheduled to sign the bill Thursday despite the White House's initial concerns with the bill.

ARPA-E would be charged with investigating "high risk, high reward" energy technology.

"If we're really going to become energy independent, it's going to take a bump in technology, so this may be the most important energy bill that we will pass," said House Science and Technology Committee Chairman Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., who led House negotiations to reconcile the bill with a Senate measure, S. 761.

ARPA-E was not in S. 761, but Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who represented Senate Republicans in talks with the House, said the pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, known as DARPA, was "so successful at DoD that we thought it was worth the risk." DARPA created Arpanet, which has evolved into the Internet.

"If we can do the same thing with energy, it will be well worth it," Alexander said.

The ranking Republican on the House Science and Technology Committee, Ralph Hall, of Texas, agreed. Speaking on the House floor just before the vote, Hall said ARPA-E is "a good program" and he fought for it despite the Energy Department's concerns.

Gordon said he believes lawmakers addressed Energy Department concerns that it would compete with its existing science office, which also does basic research. Gordon said the Bush administration wanted to ensure ARPA-E "wouldn't poach funds out of DOE Science." He said they fixed the legislation to ensure they wouldn't be competing agencies.

The structure of ARPA-E as independent from DOE is seen as key to its success in tackling the more cutting-edge, long-term alternative energy ideas. Scientists and others credit DARPA's independence and management for its success.

"The DARPA model is very attractive," said Kei Koizumi, a researcher at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. "But execution is key."

He said the Homeland Security Department's Advanced Research Projects Agency "has not turned out to be a DARPA because they haven't used the program manager model of autonomy to pursue long-term goals."

Koizumi said this time Congress specified the program manager model in the legislation authorizing ARPA-E, which makes him optimistic about the agency's prospects.

A congressional aide said the goal now is to ensure that the $300 million authorized for the first year is actually appropriated to pay for the research projects and to attract the level of program managers and scientists able to tackle "outside-the-box, not-afraid-to-fail" research.

Koizumi said it will be telling later to see whether lawmakers, who want workable energy alternatives as soon as possible, have the patience for long-term research.