Wanted: Out-of-the-Box Ideas on Clean Energy From Postdocs

The U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE's) Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) is soliciting applications for a new postdoctoral fellowship program that comes with a novel twist: Fellows must propose an out-of-the-box idea for contributing to a clean energy economy in addition to collaborating with a senior scientist on a project already under way.

"We're looking to combine deep scientific thinking with a young person's perspective," says Marie Mapes, a physical chemist who is overseeing the new fellowship program along with her regular duties in EERE's Solar Energy Technologies Program. "And we thought postdocs would be the best way to do it."

The new 2-year fellowships pay $65,000 a year and include health insurance, relocation costs, and a travel allowance. Applicants must have received their Ph.D. in the past 5 years, but there are no geographic or institutional barriers: The host lab can be in academia, government, or industry and anywhere in the world, says Igrid Gregory of the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education in Tennessee, which is managing the application process.

The new wrinkle is that applicants will get to spend 20% of their time on an idea separate from their mentors' activities but relevant to EERE's mission to develop cleaner and more efficient ways to generate and use energy. "We're asking them to bring us your best ideas," says Mapes, adding that several high-tech companies have found the approach to be a useful way to foster innovation. Applications are due by 30 June for work beginning in the fall.

The idea for the fellowships "bubbled up within EERE," says Mapes, who adds that she received an "overwhelmingly positive response" from all nine of EERE's programs—covering energy efficiency for buildings, industry, and vehicles, and renewable energy using biomass, hydrogen and fuel cells, geothermal, solar, water, and wind power. Program managers have committed to 20 slots, she adds, for a total cost of $4.2 million over 2 years, but she says that the number could grow depending on the quality of the applications.

EERE officials hope to fund additional cohorts if the first round is judged to be a success, says Mapes. Other parts of DOE's scientific empire, notably the Office of Science and the new Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, have also expressed interest in the concept.