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US energy research agency ARPA-E gets strong backing from House Science Committee

Some representatives support tripling funding

by Jeff Johnson
February 28, 2019

Photo of a hand holding a piece of plastic with electronic components.
Credit: IBM Research
An IBM project to build miniature sensors on silicon chips that detect methane using infrared light was funded by ARPA-E.

Reflecting a post-election shift, leaders of the US House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology voiced near-unanimous support for basic energy research spending at a Feb. 26 hearing to examine the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E). Some representatives even urged tripling the funding for this small agency that supports research for high-risk, high-potential projects that are unlikely to receive private funding.

ARPA-E has frequently had to eke out congressional funding. In its first appropriations in 2009, the agency received $15 million. More recently, President Donald J. Trump has sought to eliminate the agency in both his proposed budgets. Congress nevertheless gave the agency a 17% boost to $353 million for 2018 and another 4% boost to $366 million for 2019.

At the hearing, some representatives, joined by pro-ARPA-E witnesses, supported ramping up funding over five years to $1 billion annually to focus on climate change and energy-related technologies.

However, while supporting basic energy R&D, Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK) noted that the US Department of Energy already spends some $6 billion annually on applied research. More money for ARPA-E would be redundant if the agency is not “refocused on innovative research,” he said. He added his concern that funding has supported big companies with access to market capital and projects that are already succeeding in the private sector.

Lucas and other members, both Republicans and Democrats, are examining legislation to reauthorize and reform the agency.

Committee Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) noted broad support for ARPA-E, adding that its projects have led to the formation of 71 new companies, and 136 projects have attracted $2.6 billion in private-sector funding. Johnson also is cosponsoring Lucas’s reauthorization legislation.


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