The U.S. Department of Energy and the Power of Transformative Science

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Transformative science, especially in the field of energy, may well hold the key to the future growth of the U.S. economy and arguably the fate of the world. That's why U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu's recent announcement of the first $151 million in grant funding through the Advanced Research Projects Agency - Energy (ARPA-E), a new entity within the Department of Energy, is so important.

Transformative science is high-risk high-reward inquiry. It's typically too preliminary to appeal to venture capitalists and too easy for short-sighted elected officials to ridicule. But it's what has historically powered the scientific and technological advances that have made the United States a global power, and it's crucial that government take the lead in this regard, especially with the U.S. economy struggling and time running short for addressing climate change.

ARPA-E was funded for the first time with $400 million, to be spent over two years, from the stimulus act, in order to pursue, in the words of the Department of Energy, "truly transformational solutions to the energy problem." Perhaps most exciting of all, the grant proposals were peer-reviewed by more than 500 top scientists recommended to the Department by university presidents across the nation.

Nearly 3700 preliminary proposals were reviewed, 300 were selected for fuller development, and 37 were funded in the first round. So many intriguing proposals were received that, with only about 1 percent being funded initially, the Department is considering holding a science fair to bring other proposals to the attention of venture capitalists.

In the words of Secretary Chu: "The 37 projects we're funding span the spectrum - from renewable energy, to energy storage, to industrial and building efficiency, to petroleum-free vehicles, and carbon capture. They are out-of-the-box approaches ... These ideas are potentially revolutionary. Yes, they are risky, and many of these technologies will not pan out. But this is high-risk, high-reward research: if even one or two of these ideas become transformative technologies - the next transistor or another Green Revolution - this will be among the best investments we've ever made."

This is music to any scientist's ears, but it is especially surprising as it comes from the Department of Energy - not known historically for such innovative approaches; not typically funded with resources like those from the stimulus act, and never previously led by a Nobel Prize-winning physicist. In fact, Dr. Chu is the first person ever appointed to the U.S. Cabinet after having already received a Nobel Prize.

With the funding of ARPA-E, Dr. Chu is implementing a recommendation of the National Academy of Sciences contained in the landmark 2006 report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm, which Dr. Chu co-authored while serving as Director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. He also reached back to that previous capacity when he appointed Arun Majumdar, an award-winning scientist at the Lab and a member of the National Academy of Engineering, to serve as head of ARPA-E.

With this initial round of funding, the federal government is setting an example for the rest of the nation. The philanthropic and venture capital communities should now follow suit, increasing their own commitment to transformative science and its high-risk, high-reward potential.

Research Corporation for Science Advancement, the foundation that I head, is doing just that. We recently announced a major new research initiative called Scialog® - a multi-year grant program designed to accelerate the work of 21st-century science that even adds a dimension or two to the federal approach. Scialog will fund individuals or multi-disciplinary teams of scientists in the early stages of their careers to pursue transformational research, in collaboration and dialog with their fellow grantees.

The initial Scialog, which will focus on the conversion of sunlight directly into usable forms of energy, will fund grants of $100,000 for individual researchers and $250,000 for qualifying teams of researchers, for a total of $3.2 million. While this funding pales in comparison with that of the Energy Department, it is no less important to the researchers who receive it; it focuses exclusively on early-career scientists, a proven source of innovation too often under-represented in grant awards, and it fosters dialog among scientists and disciplines too often comfortable working in isolation.

The power of transformative science has extraordinary potential for our nation and our world. When it's applied to the future of energy, that potential becomes even more important.

The Obama Administration, the Department of Energy, and Dr. Chu should be applauded for funding this historic initiative. Now it's time for other funders to demonstrate a similar commitment.

James M. Gentile is president and CEO of Research Corporation for Science Advancement, America's second-oldest foundation, and the first dedicated solely to science.