Chu lays out strategy for spurring innovative lab work

Energy Secretary Steven Chu outlined his vision yesterday for turning the national laboratories into energy-innovation factories.

Drawing on his experiences as a scientist at Bell Laboratories and as director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the Nobel-winning physicist told a panel of federal science advisers that their $26 billion research network should do less basic science and more work on large-scale innovations.

"We don't have any intention of cutting [basic science] off ... but actually having something out there to focus the mind is not so bad," Chu told the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology at a meeting in Washington.

Chu is pressing Congress to provide more money for the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, or ARPA-E, to promote research at universities and private labs for developing "transformational" and "breakthrough" technologies. He is also pushing to establish what he calls energy innovation hubs where he says scientists would be free to work on major energy problems with minimal bureaucratic oversight.

His model for DOE scientists is the Manhattan Project, the World War II nuclear project that Chu described as bringing scientists and engineers together and aiming them at developing solutions quickly.


Chu is hoping innovation hubs and ARPA-E will help solve energy problems without the usual bureaucratic delays.

"Under those circumstances, you can go really fast," Chu said. "It's not about writing research papers anymore. ... Just like when venture capitalists invest, a large part of what they're investing in is people as well as the business plan."

He added, "We want to invest in people."

To accomplish his goals, Chu must work past what many see as long-term systemic problems with the lab system.

"A major criticism of the Energy Department over the last couple of decades is that it hasn't had innovative ideas," said Chad Mirkin, director of the International Institute for Nanotechnology at Northwestern University and a member of the federal advisory panel. "If you're going to change things, it's going to take smart people on the outside to shake things up and challenge the conventional wisdom and think about things in a different way."

Among those who must be convinced are members of Congress.

Appropriators provided $15 million for ARPA-E in fiscal 2009, and the stimulus law provided an additional $400 million. The House proposed keeping funding at $15 million for fiscal 2010, as well. But the innovation hub proposal has failed to get the same support.

The House spending bill for fiscal 2010 restricts funding to $35 million to establish one hub, and the House Appropriations Committee's report says the hubs "appear to be redundant" with existing DOE initiatives, like the Energy Frontier Research Centers and ARPA-E.

The Senate spending bill blocked five of the eight hubs outright, approved one and shifted funding from the stimulus law to pay for two others. DOE had proposed spending $280 million to establish the hubs.

Chu said he is still optimistic.

"On the first pass, we had some trouble convincing the House it was a good idea," he said. "But we'll figure out how to communicate."

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