Brookings study calls for new competition for federal research funds

The federal government should pump money into a new network of energy hubs to help address a long-term shortage in research dollars going toward clean technologies, a well-known think tank argues in a new report.

The assessment from the Brookings Institution, obtained by ClimateWire, calls for universities, corporate research centers and national laboratories to compete for a new pool of dollars that would be overseen by the federal government. The analysis is the latest addition to the buzz about how to get the next generation of technologies to the marketplace faster than historically has been the case with scientific pursuit in the executive branch.

It's also one that is likely to get attention because of an upcoming public relations push by the liberal-leaning institution, including a February press conference on the new analysis at the National Press Club with federal lawmakers, university presidents, venture capitalists and others. Already, the researchers received feedback from members of President Barack Obama's energy and environment team before he took office, according to Jim Duderstadt, president emeritus of the University of Michigan and one of the report's lead authors.

"Most federal energy research is conducted within siloed labs that are too far removed from the marketplace and too focused on their existing portfolios to supports 'transformational' research targeted at new energy technologies and processes," states a summary of the report.

The energy hubs, which Duderstadt said would be similar to academic medical centers, would be termed "energy discovery-innovation institutes" (e-DIIs) because of their similarity to a concept created by the National Academy of Engineering.


A way to address declining research budgets

The report argues that the new funding mechanism is the best way to address an energy and research budget that is one-fifth of what it once was in the 1970s and 1980s. Duderstadt said the program would help fill a research void that states, localities and private firms currently cannot fill because of lack of incentives and finances.

"Energy is very different than sending a man to the moon," he said. "The existing mechanisms we have are very important, but they need to be augmented."

He compared the notion to university-based engineering experiments in the 19th century that helped bring in the green revolution in agriculture. That project was funded by revenue from the sale of federal lands at the time.

Among the key recommendations in the report, which took more than a year to put together after consultations with dozens of analysts from energy industries and academia:

  • The federal government should create a national network of several dozen e-DIIs. An interagency process should establish the network and competitively award up to $200 million per year for each institute operated by university or national laboratory consortia, in addition to funding for smaller centers connected to the larger hubs.
  • The e-DIIs would compete for award dollars evaluated by an interagency panel and subject to peer review. Because of its experience with competition, the National Science Foundation should be considered as the lead agency in managing the process. The proposed e-DIIs would organize around a theme, such as renewable energy technologies or carbon sequestration, and would vie for funding of projects in their respective areas.

Shift incentives from corn-based ethanol to new research

  • Federal funding should be roughly $6 billion a year for the program, or about 25 percent of the recommended total of $20 billion to $30 billion for all federal energy research and development. Current expenditures are about one-tenth of that total.
  • Funding could come from a variety of sources, including curtailment of existing subsidies for activities of "questionable effectiveness," such as support for corn-based ethanol production.

The concepts add to a continuing debate about revamping U.S. energy research. In his confirmation hearings, Energy Secretary Steven Chu said the issue would be one of his top priorities in his new role (Greenwire, Jan. 13).

And an economic stimulus package introduced in the House of Representatives last week called for almost half a million dollars for a new research entity housed within the Department of Energy that would be modeled after the Department of Defense program that helped create the Internet. The Brookings report recommends that the new entity, called ARPA-E, could complement the e-DII idea.

It remains to be seen to what extent conservatives will go along with a push for new energy funding, particularly as the country remains mired in recession and suffering from debt. There is skepticism among some that the proposals floating around will truly lead to new machines that cut down on greenhouse gases.

Asked about the ideas in the Brookings report, an analyst at a conservative think tank said yesterday that he was concerned that the proposal would follow a similarly doomed path to those taken by what he termed failed governmental attempts to create a memory chip and synthetic fuels in the 1970s.

"While their model for research implies competition, the ultimate energy system they are proposing is a single monolith, controlled by government," said David Kreutzer, senior policy analyst in energy economics and climate change at the Heritage Foundation. "It's disturbing we have to have central control."



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