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Studies say ARPA-E, EPA programs have worked well, contrary to political rhetoric

  • Tue, 20 Jun 2017 03:28
Enlarge / Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency Scott Pruitt delivered the press briefing in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House, on Friday, June 2, 2017. (Photo by Cheriss May)
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An independent review of ARPA-E and a graduate study program offered by the EPA has found that the two embattled, federally funded grant programs are necessary, contrary to claims made by Washington. The studies relied on years of record-keeping and could be useful for politicians arguing against the aggressive budget cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Energy (DOE) proposed by the Trump administration.

The studies focused on the DOE’s ARPA-E (or Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy) program and the EPA’s STAR (Science To Achieve Results) program. The Trump administration has proposed that funding be cut entirely for ARPA-E and that funding for the EPA’s Office of Research and Development (which directed the STAR program) be cut by half.

Both studies were conducted by the National Academies of Sciences—the ARPA-E study was conducted at Congress' request, and the EPA STAR study was conducted at the EPA's own request.

ARPA-E: “Not in need of reform”

A program like ARPA-E was requested in 2007 by Congress, and the agency was initially funded in 2009. Its directive was to jumpstart early-stage energy research by awarding grants to researchers looking to develop more efficient solar panels, biofuels from new waste products, or ways to convert carbon dioxide into fuel.

The agency has generally received broad bipartisan support due to the fact that the grants are given to research institutions across the nation and not just doled out to a few of the nation’s national labs. (In fact, the Republican-led Congress recently approved more money for ARPA-E projects in 2017 than had been set aside in 2016). But many conservative leaders, including those in the Trump administration, believe that the research that ARPA-E funds ought to be conducted by private companies. Some have even contended that ARPA-E is poorly run because little of its research has been made into a marketable product.

But the NAS study discredits the notion that ARPA-E is poorly managed and has failed its mission because the research it funds isn’t marketable. It points out that ARPA-E’s mission is to kickstart early-stage research and technologies. “Most ARPA-E awards last for about three years, much shorter than the decades required to commercialize energy technologies,” the NAS paper notes. The agency itself has only been around for six years, and in such a short time there’s little data to show how the research has impacted the energy sector. However, the study says, there's plenty of data on "intermediate impacts" that ARPA-E has had on the energy field.

Those intermediate impacts are measured in prospective market value. The NAS study notes that of all the projects ARPA-E has funded in its six years of existence, “roughly half have published results of their research in peer-reviewed journals, and about 13 percent have obtained patents. One-quarter of the supported project teams or technologies have received follow-on funding for continued work. All of these are positive indicators for technologies on a trajectory toward commercialized products. In fact, several are either already commercially available or poised to enter the commercial market.”

In addition, the study found that ARPA-E-funded projects are actually quite successful because of the amount of oversight program directors have over the projects. Much like the board members of a startup, ARPA-E program directors set milestones for grantees and can “recommend personnel changes and work with performers to identify and recruit qualified personnel or subcontractors.” If the funding recipients fail to meet milestones agreed upon by ARPA-E, funding can be cancelled early. Program managers can also suggest alternative milestones in the event the project’s research leads it in a different direction than expected.

The study comes to the forceful conclusion that ARPA-E is actually working very well:

The findings make clear that ARPA-E is not in an extreme situation. The agency is not failing and is not in need of reform. In fact, attempts to reform the agency—such as applying pressure for ARPA-E to show short-term successes rather than focusing on its longterm mission and goals—would pose a significant risk of harming its efforts and chances of achieving its mission and goals.

The study did provide a few recommendations to the agency, saying that ARPA-E should rethink how it structures its “tech-to-market” program “to account for the wide variation in support needed across programs and performers with respect to prospective funding, commercialization, and deployment pathways.” It also suggested that APRA-E consider extending its three-year funding period, given that three years is too short a time to move an early-stage technology from concept to marketable product. And, seeing as how ARPA-E is tasked with pursuing ideas that are considered “high-risk, potentially transformative technologies” that are “pursued by neither private firms nor other funding agencies,” the agency might do well to recognize that some of its projects may never be commercialized and might “produce only valuable knowledge, including knowledge of research pathways that should not be pursued further.”

“The STAR fellowship program should be restored”

Funding for the EPA’s STAR fellowship program was frozen this year under new Administrator Scott Pruitt, who has advocated for aggressively cutting funding from the administration he heads. The STAR program was founded in 1995.

According to the NAS study, the STAR fellowships were supposed to be consolidated under the National Science Foundation (NSF), but the study says that the fellowships lost under the STAR program have not been regained at NSF. “It appears that the move to centralize graduate fellowships in NSF has led to a large reduction in the support of students interested in environmental research. In 2015, there were 168 NSF fellows in environmental sciences and ecologic research and 51 STAR fellows. In 2017, after the STAR fellowship program was canceled, there were 176 NSF fellows in environmental sciences and ecologic research; thus, there are indeed fewer fellowships in environmental and environmental health sciences.”

NAS wrote that this fellowship program was the US government’s primary vehicle for funding environment and health research, which, over 20 years, “has supported interventions that may reduce the cost of regulations, protect public health, and save lives.”

Much like the ARPA-E study, the STAR study came to the conclusion that the program was also well-managed and involved “priority-setting procedures” to allow the program to flexibly meet “the nation’s changing research priorities.”

Unlike with ARPA-E, STAR had been around long enough to roughly track results from the funding. STAR’s focus was from the start less intent on commercializing technology, but its success has been measured in other ways. From 2002 to April 2017, STAR projects resulted in 5,760 journal publications. The NAS study also found a variety of more direct results as well. Research funded by the program has shown how increased air pollution leads to a decrease in life expectancy, pinpointing risks from particulate matter that inform air quality standards today. NAS says this alone “may have saved lives and reduced healthcare costs nationwide.”

Some of the most important research to come out of STAR involved children’s health:

In 2016, a research project partially supported by a STAR grant found that infants could be exposed to arsenic through rice cereal, and this led the Food and Drug Administration to propose regulations to protect infant health. Another example is the discovery by the University of Washington Children’s Center that farmworker children had increased exposure to the pesticide ingredient azinphos-methyl which is a neurotoxin; this finding informed EPA’s decision to phase out the use of the azinphos-methyl.

The NAS study also pointed out that STAR research has been good for industry, too. In one case, it identified a tissue-based method to test for certain chemical exposures, creating a more cost-effective way for companies to come into compliance with EPA standards. “Another research project supported by STAR discovered a cost-effective way to remove nitrate from drinking water,” the study offered.

The study also offered a few recommendations that could have improved STAR. The most telling of the recommendations is that STAR ought to have created better ways to track the linkages between grants, fellowships, publications, and public benefits. Thorough tracking of the program's success could have made it easier for STAR to point to its usefulness. Specifically, the study recommended that grantees report any successes and public benefits that come from their research as far as five to 10 years after the research had been concluded.

Ministry of Innovation – Ars Technica

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