A major effort to revamp research and development at the Department of Energy, which Energy Secretary Steven Chu says is critical to solving energy-related challenges, hangs in the balance as the Obama administration attempts to make its case to a skeptical Congress.
Last month, the House and Senate committees responsible for appropriating money to the Department of Energy shot down Chu’s proposed “Energy Innovation Hubs,” with the House killing funding for all but one of the eight proposed hubs and the Senate provisionally funding only three. The House committee called the hubs redundant and criticized the Department of Energy for a lack of planning and clear communication about them. Since then, the department has issued much more detailed accounts of the hubs, and the Obama administration has said it “strongly opposes” the committee’s decision to cut the requested funds.
Each hub would bring together top researchers under one roof to address one of eight “grand challenges” related to energy and would be modeled on the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb, and the legendary Bell Laboratories, where the invention of the transistor and the development of information theory, among other things, helped make possible the semiconductor industry and the Internet.
“The intent is to create a fierce sense of urgency to deliver solutions,” says a report released by the DOE in response to congressional criticism. (For a full list of the eight challenges, and detailed descriptions of the hubs, click here and here.)
The idea to create hubs was inspired by Chu’s own tenure as a researcher at Bell Labs. These well-funded research facilities featured top researchers, who had the authority to decide quickly whether or not to fund a new project, based on discussions with the researchers who came up with the idea. “You could say no within an hour, and you could say yes within a day or a week,” he said at a talk earlier this year at MIT. What’s more, the close proximity of leading experts in a variety of fields made it easy to find out what work had been done in an area and what pitfalls should be avoided. After talking to a couple of people, “you were likely to be sitting down with a world expert,” he said. At Bell Labs, research ran the gamut from basic efforts to explore how the world works to research that applied those findings and developed technical solutions–stages of research and development that are typically kept separate at universities and national laboratories.
The proposed innovation hubs would mimic this approach, with managers located on-site rather than behind a desk in Washington. They would be funded for five years at a time, freeing researchers from yearly funding cycles that make planning difficult. And the funding would be substantial–$35 million for the first year and $25 million per year thereafter. In comparison, research projects at universities typically receive $150,000 a year. To obtain a second round of five-year funding, the hubs would have to show significant progress in proving that their new technologies can work, with the goal of developing something that industry could bring to market.