Chu Places His Energy Bet on ARPA-E

Although his request for the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) represents only $300 million in a departmental budget of $28.4 billion, Energy Secretary Steven Chu clearly believes that the fledgling agency is his scientific ace in the hole. The proposed funding for ARPA-E was unveiled this week as part of the president's 2011 budget request for the Department of Energy (DOE). It would be the agency's first regular appropriation (although it received $400 million last year in the massive federal stimulus package). And the fact that the request is $75 million larger than the increase Chu is seeking for DOE's $5 billion Office of Science speaks volumes about his confidence in an agency that he championed in an influential 2005 National Academies report on strengthening U.S. science.

Speaking with reporters today after testifying on the DOE budget before the Energy and Natural Resources Committee of the U.S. Senate, Chu said he's convinced that an agency whose director has been on board for only a few months and whose staff could fit around a dining room table will accomplish great things. Here's what he had to say in response to a question from ScienceInsider:

Now, the Office of Science is an extremely well run organization, but it's $5 billion. And there is a level of conservatism there. Not only that, the Office of Science does mission-oriented research.

ARPA-E is a very different story. This is a quick hit of 2 or 3 years of money. After that, you need to find money either in the Office of Science or the applied areas, or in the private sector. So it's a very different philosophy than in the Office of Science, which has ongoing projects and has sustainability and other issues.

So, is $300 million the right amount? Absolutely. In fact, I wouldn't mind having a little more. If you look at the team, from the director on down, they are an extraordinary group of individuals. …

… When we did the Rising Above the Gathering Storm report, the committee told me to sell the idea of ARPA-E to Congress. So I did, and during one of the hearings, they tried to get me to say that the idea was controversial, and that some people liked it and other people didn't. In fact, all the people said, "If it's well-managed, it's a good idea." DARPA was well-managed, and it's done great things. … And I can say with absolute confidence that we've got an extraordinary team of people. So that this will be money well-spent.