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U.S. National Academies give ARPA-E good grades

Program funding high-risk, early-stage energy research targeted for elimination by Trump

by Cheryl Hogue
June 16, 2017 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 95, Issue 25

ARPA-E by the numbers

$306 million

in federal funding in fiscal 2017


of project teams or technologies received follow-on funding for continued work


of projects had results published in peer-reviewed journals


of projects led to patents7

A federal energy research program that U.S. President Donald J. Trump has proposed to defund earned positive marks from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering & Medicine.

In a congressionally mandated report released on June 13, the National Academies assesses the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E). The report says the program is delivering on its mission to develop early-stage energy innovations and pave a path to their commercialization.

ARPA-E focuses on high-risk and potentially transformative technologies and opportunities that neither other federal agencies nor the private sector is funding. This, the report says, is one of ARPA-E’s strengths.

“ARPA-E has made significant contributions to energy R&D that likely would not take place absent the agency’s activities,” said Pradeep Khosla, chair of the committee that wrote the report and chancellor of the University of California, San Diego.

Congress created ARPA-E in 2007, but the program did not get significant funding until 2009. The report says that given its few years of operation, ARPA-E “cannot reasonably be expected to have completely fulfilled its goals.”

The extent of the program’s impacts won’t be seen for years, the report continues. It warns that attempts to reshape the agency through pressure to produce short-term results would create a significant risk of failure.

In his budget request for 2018 released in May, Trump asked Congress to eliminate funding for ARPA-E. Earlier this month, CEOs of energy, chemical, and biotechnology companies wrote to top congressional appropriators, asking them to continue federal funding of energy programs—especially early-stage and high-risk research.

In a separate report, another National Academies committee assessed EPA’s Science to Achieve Results (STAR) grant program. Trump’s 2018 budget proposed to eliminate the approximately $35 million funding for STAR, the agency’s primary extramural grants program that was established in 1995.

In a report released on June 15, the committee finds that the STAR program has supported research of high scientific merit, produced results used to influence policy, and reduced the costs of compliance with environmental regulation. For example, STAR-backed research developed a tissue-based method for evaluating effects on the thyroid gland from exposure to chemicals. This method may reduce the cost of testing commercial compounds for toxicity compared with studies that use laboratory animals, the report says.

The report recommends that EPA continue the STAR grants program.

It also notes that the STAR program included fellowships for graduate students until 2015, when federal fellowships were consolidated into the National Science Foundation. But because NSF’s training programs don’t cover environmental health effects, the shift led to a large reduction in support of students wanting to conduct environmental research, the report says. It recommends the government restore the STAR fellowships at EPA.



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