One of NASEM’s key findings was that ARPA-E has become a positive agent of change at DOE and that some of its key practices are being incorporated in other DOE offices and federal agencies. Recognizing the potential to strengthen and streamline research activities—while considering the different scope, goals, and mission of DOE’s various offices—NASEM recommended continuing to explore and adopt ARPA-E’s best practices across the agency. This includes in DOE’s applied offices which, unlike ARPA-E, focus on technology that receives support over a longer timeframe and is often aligned with a technology roadmap. DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy has successfully adopted several features from ARPA-E that fit within the office’s technology-focused framework, including:
- Modifying processes for selecting and funding proposals, including the use of pre-proposals like the concept papers ARPA-E requires applicants to submit.
- Holding workshops to convene experts in defining problems facing the energy sector and their potential solutions.
- Empowering program managers to select and make funding recommendations for awardees.
- Hiring some key personnel under limited terms, to create urgency and frequently inject fresh perspectives into the department.
- Funding awards using cooperative agreements with specific milestones so that awards can be terminated early if projects cannot perform.
- Actively managing awards, including the ability to re-direct or terminate underperforming projects.
- Having the ability to create and adjust technical milestones.
Specifically, the Solar Energy Technology Office (formerly the SunShot Initiative) incorporated technical support contractors for guidance, began asking applicants to submit concept papers when applying for funding, incorporated modified ARPA-E evaluation criteria, and encouraged reviewers to consider the potential economic or societal impact of a project, not just technical merit. DOE’s Vehicle Technology Office borrowed many of these features as well and likewise enjoyed noticeable improvement in program function.
Adopting certain ARPA-E organizational features has the potential to accelerate the pace of technology breakthroughs in other DOE offices and federal agencies. To most effectively follow NASEM recommendation to continue exploring ways to adopt ARPA-E best practices, it’s important to consider the unique research goals of each office and whether, and how, applying ARPA-E features can improve program function.