Unmet Opportunities For Near-Term if Risky Breakthroughs




This past year, Congress has wisely voted to create a new agency, ARPA-E, to try to fill a huge gap which is well known to everyone at the forefront of energy technology.


This gap is often called “the valley of death.” Between the world of true basic research (typically funded by NSF or by “6-1” funds in DOD), and the world of large scale demonstration projects for DOE, there is room for well-focused small-scale strategic research aimed at opening up radically new ways of doing things. There is a need for research projects which try to finding new ways to double performance, or to explore new approaches to well-defined challenges… projects which are too well-defined for existing permanent NSF programs, but too unproven for billion dollar demonstration projects. Or to put it another way… those of us who have worked at the front lines of technology research know that there are huge potential opportunities out there to change the game which are simply falling between the cracks.


Unfortunately – it is not such a simple thing to fill this gap. The traditional practices at DOE have involved huge projects and large stakeholders, and a culture of operation aimed at those kinds of projects. Before getting too far into setting up ARPA-E, DOE wisely issued a “request for information” for ideas on how to rise to this challenge:




Because ARPA-E asked for separate stand-alone comments on each of about ten major areas, I submitted three sets of recommendations,

one for R&D to support electrification of transportation,

one for R&D to support advanced renewable fuels,

and one for R&D for more efficient vehicles and central station renewable electricity.

These are the three where the potential impact of new R&D on the “global game” is greatest.


In that last set of recommendations, I noted that the “smart grid” – another whole topic  -- is also important,

but I deferred to a paper I presented at a recent IEEE conference on that topic


These recommendations are essentially a more detailed version of what I proposed in the “research” section of the oil independence bill I recently drafted, which is posted in full with various levels of explanation at www.werbos.com/oil.htm.


Higher-level policy people have often asked me: “Why are you asking for such a small amount of money? $60 or $70 million per year to change the entire world energy system? That’s less than one mid-sized demo!” In fact, my bill (and my comments) do not ask for new money at all; it is a question of making room for something new in existing appropriations.


People in the university and small business research community know that a “mere” $20 million/year permanent new research program could actually have a huge impact, compared to the very meager funds which are available today all across the many topics in which basic research is conducted today.


There are many people who assume that fundamental research always means nonfocused, nonstrategic research with no chance of a big short-term benefit. This is a gross misconception which causes great losses. In my web page in general I have tried to show how strategic thinking and perspective can be hugely important in keeping us from getting lost, even when we address the most difficult fundamental question of science such as “what is mind?” and “how does the universe work?” Certainly it would take many decades at best for us to fully answer these questions, even if we were mature enough to do the best we could. But equally certainly – there are already important benefits emerging from research into those questions.


At NSF, I remember many cases where a review panel would be looking at two proposals for the same application area – one a “low risk” proposal using established methods, and an other one a “high risk” proposal approaching things in a radically different way. In some cases we would end up funding some of both. (Numerical budget quotas and management timidity tend to vary a lot, and tend to favor the “low risk” projects, despite strong official policies at the top to favor the transformative projects.) Experience has shown that the probability of producing no useful innovation was much HIGHER with the “low risk” projects, because when well-known methods are applied to well-trod ground, the probability of anything useful and new is small. In those cases where the riskier projects did succeed, they often led to large IMMEDIATE benefits, though the lag time to penetrate a new commercial market would depend a lot on the lag times inherent to that market. (Missile interceptors often move a lot faster than electric utility systems, in part because of the effects of competition.) With many well-grounded but novel technologies, the risk is more a matter of human risk than of the viability of the technology itself. Virtually all of the technologies I proposed to ARPA-E are well-grounded in that way. Virtually all have well over a 50% probability of being able to change the world, if only we could manage to do full justice to them. The risk lies in us, not in the technology itself. There should ALSO be R&D in riskier technologies, more like 10-50% objectively, but for now I focus my policy-level efforts on cases where our shoelaces are right in front of us and we need to tie them fast or get eaten up soon by what’s chasing us.


How can the risk lie in us, not in the technology? I can think of cases where a woman had an excellent R&D plan… but couldn’t carry it through because of an authoritarian husband showing up at the last minute, taking over and screwing up. I can think of cases where a key researcher came from a culture quite different from that of key people in the funding world, and that got in the way. It may seem hard to imagine human beings throwing away what could be the future of all of humanity just in order to enforce their own cultural rules… but it happens every day. I do hope that the new intelligent focus of ARPA-E will rise above these forces of inertia… at least enough to capture a good share of the huge breakthroughs which are just sitting there and wainting for us.