On Tuesday, however, the panel of experts convened by the National Academy of Sciences said it had “found no signs that ARPA-E is failing.”
To the contrary, the panel said in its evaluation that the agency had made vital progress in nudging forward research on projects like advanced carbon capture and grid-scale battery storage. And the report’s authors suggested that much of this research was in high-risk areas that would not have otherwise been pursued by the private sector, echoing the conclusions of a 2012 investigation by the Government Accountability Office.
“ARPA-E has made significant contributions to energy R. and D. that likely would not take place absent the agency’s activities,” Pradeep Khosla, chairman of the panel that wrote the report and chancellor of the University of California, San Diego, said in a statement.
Half of the research projects funded by ARPA-E so far have published the results of their research in peer-reviewed journals, and 13 percent have resulted in patents. “All of these are positive indicators for technologies on a trajectory toward commercialized products,” the report said.
The expert panel conceded that early-stage research is always an uncertain enterprise, and it is unclear which bets being made today might eventually prove revolutionary down the road. ARPA-E’s funding of research into new semiconductor materials could one day help companies build electronic gadgets that use far less energy than today’s versions — or it could be a dead end.
“It is often impossible to gauge what will prove to be transformational; tests or breakthroughs that garner big headlines can end up being underwhelming in the long run, whereas small, incremental tweaks can turn out to enable major shifts in technologies or processes,” the report said.
Still, the panel praised ARPA-E’s culture of risk-taking and urged patience with the agency, noting that it has been funding research for only six years and that it could take much longer for the agency’s full impact to be appreciated.
It is unclear if ARPA-E will have the chance to prove itself, given Mr. Trump’s stated desire to zero out the agency — part of his proposal to slash a wide range of research programs within the Energy Department. Congress will ultimately have the final say, and many influential Republicans have praised ARPA-E in the past, including Senator Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska, who gave a keynote address at the agency’s innovation summit meeting in Maryland last year.