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Pennsylvania State University graduate student Molly Hanlon, right, had hoped Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy funds would fuel the next phase of her career. 

Patrick Mansell/Penn State

DOE freezes millions in high-tech energy grants and gags staff

The Department of Energy (DOE) has stopped processing the paperwork on tens of millions of dollars in research that its Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) has agreed to fund.

DOE officials aren't saying why they have taken this unusual step, dubbed a “no-contract action.” It went into effect earlier this month and affects more than a dozen projects across four new ARPA-E programs. The move, first reported by Politico Pro, includes a gag order on ARPA-E program managers, leaving investigators in the dark about the status of their grants. The resulting uncertainty is having a devastating impact on research teams, scientists say, and even threatens the viability of small companies for whom these major awards are so important.

Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX), the top Democrat on the science committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, is concerned that the apparent contracting freeze might violate federal laws requiring agencies to spend appropriations from Congress—in this case, the $291 million that ARPA-E received for the 2016 fiscal year that ended last September. On Wednesday she wrote to DOE Secretary Rick Perry reminding him that “diversion or impoundment of this money would be contrary to law” and asking him whether the agency “is currently subject to a ‘no-contract action’ or similar action and, if so what the parameters are.”

The move may also be hindering research projects already underway. There are reports that DOE is refusing to respond to requests from grantees for routine adjustments in their current projects, which require the agency’s approval. These so-called “no cost” extensions can cover the inevitable delays and complications that accompany the type of risky research ARPA-E likes to fund, or greenlight new research thrusts that don’t require additional funding.

Researchers fear this month’s action is a prelude to more drastic steps. In March, President Donald Trump unveiled a 2018 budget blueprint that proposed eliminating ARPA-E. Although some Republicans opposed its creation in 2007 and see its grants as unnecessary government intervention into the private sector, the agency now enjoys bipartisan support within Congress. And there are no indications that legislators plan to squeeze its funding in the 2017 budget Congress hopes to complete next week.

Shallow roots

Plant biologist Molly Hanlon was supposed to start work Monday on a $7 million project that is part of the $36 million ROOTS (Rhizosphere Observations Optimizing Terrestrial Sequestration) program at ARPA-E. Hanlon is finishing up her Ph.D. at Pennsylvania State University (Penn State) in State College, and she shelved other postdoctoral opportunities to become project coordinator of the project led by Penn State plant nutritionist Jonathan Lynch—one of 10 winning ROOTS projects announced last December.

Lynch hopes to develop a low-cost integrated system that can identify and screen for high-yielding, deeper-rooted crops. One aspect of the project makes use of a hand-held x-ray fluorescence device that can characterize trace minerals in the soil by examining a plant’s leaves. The technology allows for high-volume and rapid analysis of a large plot without disturbing plant roots, and it leapfrogs the painstaking work of collecting and drying leaves and bringing them back to the lab for analysis. The data will feed into Lynch’s work on how roots develop and vary.

“I came up with this technology in response to the [ARPA-E] solicitation,” Lynch explains. “It’s a high-risk idea that other agencies wouldn’t fund. But that’s what ARPA-E wants. And I believe it will work.”

Hanlon says the novel technology first made her wary. But she eventually decided that such a bold project was exactly how she wanted to launch her scientific career.

The project calls for planting 7 hectares of maize in three locations—Arizona, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin—under varying conditions, and then monitoring it throughout the growing season. “And you have to start planting it in May,” he says. “If you miss that window, you lose an entire season.”

But it’s not just pushing back the 1 May start date that troubles Lynch. “It’s the uncertainty that is so stressful,” he says. “Are they ever going to fund us? And even if they do, how long will the delay last? We can’t do anything until we get word from them.”

As a tenured professor with a thriving research program, Lynch acknowledges that he can ride out the storm. But it’s a lot harder for Hanlon to take a long-range view when her scientific career is on the line.

“I want to remain optimistic,” she says of her anticipated 4-year postdoc, “and everybody has been really supportive. But at some point I’m going to have to sit down and decide when I should put myself back on the market.”

Calum Chisholm and his 10-person company, SAFCell Inc., of Pasadena, California, are also waiting for their ARPA-E funding to be awarded. Chisholm, who has worked on fuel cell and hydrogen storage technologies for 20 years, was chosen in December 2016 as one of 16 lead partners in a $32 million ARPA-E program called REFUEL (Renewable Energy to Fuels Through Utilization of Energy-Dense Liquids). Negotiations on the $3 million grant dragged on through the winter and into the early spring, and the latest delay just compounds the problems facing the 12-year-old company.

Soon after the announcement, Chisholm used $200,000 in preaward spending approval to order one-off parts and equipment and began the process of hiring two new employees. One will have to be laid off if the money never materializes, he says, and he guesses the second will go elsewhere if the delay continues for much longer. He’s also raised $1 million in private funding that he says could be pulled if the project’s status remains up in the air.

And things could get worse, he adds. “The work on this grant represents about half of our total productivity,” Chisholm says. “If the project is delayed significantly, I could run out of cash. And that will put the entire company in jeopardy.”

It is not clear how many projects from the two programs remain in limbo. But a count by ScienceInsider shows that five of the 16 REFUEL projects and five of the 10 ROOTS projects are awaiting promised funding.

Traffic congestion

A third new program, called NEXTCAR (Next-Generation Energy Technologies for Connected and Automated On-Road Vehicles), is also being affected by the contracting freeze and gag order. The 10 winners, announced last November, met earlier this month at a conference in Dearborn, Michigan, to discuss their projects and hear from industry leaders. But at least one project, a $3 million award to Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, aimed at optimizing efficiencies for heavy-duty diesel truck, still awaits a final agreement.

Mechanical engineering professor Gregory Shaver, the principal investigator (PI), is reluctant to discuss the situation. But he acknowledges that there’s been a hold-up. “We are working with our partners to articulate the value and importance of our project to the Department of Energy and Members of Congress,” he told ScienceInsider in an email. “We hope the issue will be resolved quickly.”

A fourth new project is the most severely affected by the new policy. None of the eight projects that are part of a new $25 million ARPA-E program called ENLITENED (ENergy Efficient Light-wave Integrated Technology Enabling Networks that Enhance Datacenters) has yet completed the paperwork needed to get their money. And ARPA-E hasn’t even been eager to spread the word about the winners.

A 15 March email bringing the good news to each team came with the warning that the information was embargoed, says George Porter, one of six co-PIs on a $3.8 million ENLITENED project based at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). A scheduled announcement at a scientific conference later that week was scrapped, he adds. And even when the embargo was lifted 2 weeks later, Porter notes, the winners were reminded that the funding for their award “was not in place.”

An assistant professor of computer science, Porter sees the pool of seven graduate students who would be funded under UCSD’s winning proposal as a great way to advance this interdisciplinary field and build up his 3-year-old lab. “The project cuts across photonics, electrical engineering, and computer science, and that’s rare,” he says. “This project is also an incredible opportunity for these top-notch students who are just beginning their careers.”

Looking to Congress

Porter is one of several scientists who have asked their congressional delegations to help clear up the confusion and restore the normal contracting process at ARPA-E. Porter admits to being a novice at lobbying, but says he was moved to act because these projects have great potential to boost the local economy. “I just thought that Congress, which has shown a lot of support for ARPA-E, should be aware of this situation,” he says about a meeting earlier this week with staffers for Representative Darrell Issa (R–CA).

In contrast, officials at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, Missouri, are old hands at this Washington, D.C., game. The center’s scientists are involved in $20 million worth of research projects funded by ARPA-E in the last 2 years, including a ROOTS project, and its leaders wasted little time contacting both their state’s senators as well as district representative to plead their case.

“The loss of funding for ARPA-E will have impact, in our region and our country, that is far greater than the face value of the [proposed 2018] budget cut,” Danforth’s president, James Carrington, wrote to Senator Roy Blunt (R–MO). “I strongly encourage you to work to maintain ARPA-E, and to ensure that funds that have already been awarded remain intact.”

Both the halt in grants processing and the cone of silence that now envelops ARPA-E caught the agency’s rank-and-file staffers by surprise. Correspondence between REFUEL program managers and scientists about a meeting of PIs planned for earlier this week in Houston, Texas, makes that abundantly clear.

On 24 February project scientists received a “save the date” memo and instructions on booking flights and hotel rooms. On 10 April a staffer sent an email offering tips on their PowerPoint presentations that opened with the greeting, “I hope you are all getting ready for the kickoff meeting in a few weeks!”

The bad news arrived 8 days later. “Dear REFUEL kickoff participants,” the email begins. “Due to unforeseen circumstances beyond our control, the REFUEL Program Kickoff meeting is postponed until further notice.” For Chisholm, there was a final insult—the airline charged him a $200 change fee on his $273 plane ticket.