President Bush Approves Bill to Create "ARPA-E"

August 15, 2007

President Bush signed the "America COMPETES Act" on August 9th, thereby authorizing the formation of a new DOE program for advanced energy research. The act, H.R. 2272, features an extra-long name—the "America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science Act"—and includes a provision to create the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E). Modeled after the Defense Research Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), ARPA-E will develop and deploy advanced energy technologies by identifying and promoting revolutionary advances in fundamental sciences, translating those discoveries into technological innovations, and accelerating transformational technological advances in areas that industry by itself is not likely to undertake. Many of the measures in the new act, including ARPA-E, were recommended by the National Academies in a report published in 2005. See Section 5012 of the new act, the White House announcement of its signing, and the press release and report from the National Academies.

Aerial photo of a Ford Escape Hybrid approaching a curve on a rugged dirt road. The vehicle has solar panels on its roof and is outfitted with sensors in front and flashing warning lights in back.

One of the many recent DARPA projects was the Grand Challenge, which featured robotically controlled vehicles navigating across the desert on rough roads while avoiding obstacles. DARPA will host a similar competition in an urban setting in November.
Credit: DARPA Grand Challenge

The America COMPETES Act authorizes $300 million for ARPA-E in fiscal year 2008, although there is no guarantee that Congress will actually approve that level of funding. The act places most of its emphasis on improving science and math education at all levels, from elementary school to higher education, while including a number of measures to advance basic research. According to a White House fact sheet, the act authorizes a doubling in funding for research programs in the physical sciences. However, the White House warns that the bill "creates 30 new programs that are mostly duplicative or counterproductive," including ARPA-E, which is "more appropriately left to the private sector." The act also "provides excessive authorization for existing programs," according to the White House. The fact sheet concludes that the President's proposed budget for fiscal year 2009 will not include funds for these measures. See the White House fact sheet.

DARPA, the model for ARPA-E, was established in 1958 in response to the Soviet launching of the Sputnik satellite. Since that time, DARPA's mission has been to assure that the United States maintains a lead in applying state-of-the-art technologies for military capabilities and to prevent technological surprise from her adversaries. DARPA has established a reputation as an agile, forward-looking research and development group unconstrained by conventional thinking and able to investigate ideas and approaches that the traditional research community finds too outlandish or risky. The organization also enjoys substantial autonomy and freedom from bureaucratic impediments. See the DARPA Web site.