Energy Discovery-Innovation Institutes - Needed, or just a work-around?

It looks like we'll have the huge stimulus package passed very shortly, and it appears to include $400 million for the new ARPA-E program at the Department of Energy, for advanced energy projects, among many other good energy-related programs in the stimulus bill. I find the ARPA-E piece of interest because the other day I happened to run into this report from the Brookings Institution, part of their Blueprint for American Prosperity project. This Brookings report does a nice job of outlining the general lack of US investment in energy research (compared to other fields), some of the historic dysfunctionality of the Energy Department, and proposes a new set of inter-agency "discovery-innovation institutes", along with a substantial increase in energy research funding, to advance energy technologies in the US.

You can download an 18-page brief or the full 78-page report for more details. The major focus (even in the titles) on the e-DII idea may seem a little strange given the nominal purpose of the Department of Energy as it exists, but the reports point out serious issues with DOE labs and management that have prevented the kinds of transfer of good ideas to large-scale deployment that should be happening. From p. 30 of the full report:

As the DOE’s SEAB Task Force warns, “The Department of Energy (DOE) has a historically poor reputation as being badly managed, excessively fragmented, and politically unresponsive. The current organization of the Department is not appropriate to the magnitude and centrality of scientific and advanced technological research required by our energy challenges.”

[...] fragmentation leads to stovepipe organizations that focus on incremental or discrete technologies as opposed to systems that integrate R&D on the supply, distribution, and end-use needs for the set of energy sources and associated infrastructures required to supply the nation with reliable, affordable, and sustainable energy. This can result in energy policies that seriously underestimate threats and consequences and are all too frequently risk-averse and parochial, tending to seriously misjudge the potential for new high-risk, high-payoff, technologically-enabled opportunities and threats.

[...] the national energy labs are too far removed from the marketplace and too focused on existing portfolios to support “transformational” research targeted at new energy technologies. [...] Similarly, the organizational separation of DOE’s basic and applied energy research programs makes the migration of basic research findings to applied research solutions difficult and undisciplined, with those successes that do emerge often simply serendipitous.

Finally, few DOE labs are staffed to conduct the market analysis and public policy research required for large-scale deployment of renewable energy sources, for significant gains in energy efficiency, and for reduction in fossil fuel consumption. Diffusing technology through our social system in a rational and planned way will be as critical to a rapid transformation of our energy systems as the technology itself. Poorly planned introduction of technology has resulted in a history of unintended consequences that often do more to damage the growth of that technology than to help it. With the clock ticking, a major challenge involves developing systematic approaches to technology diffusion that avoid the obvious mistakes. A new approach to technology development and deployment is badly needed to avoid costly false starts that the nation can ill afford.

The report goes on to describe the e-DII concept; there is some overlap with ARPA-E's purpose, and also that of proposed "Energy Frontier Research Centers", but the e-DII is presented as a more comprehensive implementation:

The ARPA-E model would sponsor high-risk energy research with potential technology applications and speed the development of promising technology, which used to be pursued by the Advanced Energy Projects program in DOE, terminated in fiscal year (FY) 2000. The ARPA-E concept was detailed by the National Academies of Sciences in a 2005 report on science and technology R&D and American competitiveness. [...]
The ARPA-E model, by itself, lacks the scale and intellectual breadth to address the nation’s energy challenges. [...] the domain of ARPA-E is by design limited in scope to nimble, high-risk projects that would not otherwise fit into the DOE organizational structure. In this way, fundamental basic research on important energy issues is outside the domain of ARPA-E and must be funded through other mechanisms.

The Brookings proposed alternative is these e-DIIs, 25 to 50 of them, associated with both labs and major universities -

a national network of regionally-based, commercialization-oriented energy discovery-innovation institutes (e-DIIs) that would serve as hubs in a distributed research network linked through “spoke” relationships to other concentrations of the nation’s best scientists, engineers, and facilities.

The DII concept originated with a 2005 recommendation from the National Academy of Engineering:

RECOMMENDATION 9. Multidisciplinary discovery-innovation institutes should be established on the campuses of research universities to link fundamental scientific discoveries with technological innovations to create products, processes, and services to meet the needs of society. Funding for the institutes should be provided by federal and state governments, industry, foundations, the venture capital and investing community, and universities.

With the participation of many scientific disciplines and professions, as well as various economic sectors (industry, government, states, and institutions of higher education), discovery-innovation institutes would be similar in character and scale to academic medical centers and agricultural experiment stations that combine research, education, and professional practice and drive transformative change. As experience with academic medical centers and other large research initiatives has shown, discovery-innovation institutes would stimulate significant regional economic activity, such as the location nearby of clusters of start-up firms, private research organizations, suppliers, and other complementary groups and businesses.

On the federal level, the discovery-innovation institutes should be funded jointly by agencies with responsibilities for basic research and missions that address major national priorities (e.g., National Science Foundation [NSF], U.S. Department of Energy, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, U.S. Department of Defense, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Department of Transportation, U.S. Department of Commerce, Environmental Protection Agency, and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services).

States would be required to contribute to the institutes (perhaps by providing capital facilities). Industry would provide challenging research problems, systems knowledge, and real-life market knowledge, as well as staff who would work with university faculty and students in the institutes. Industry would also fund student internships and provide direct financial support for facilities and equipment (or share its facilities and equipment). Universities would commit to providing a policy framework (e.g., transparent and efficient intellectual property policies, flexible faculty appointments, responsible financial management, etc.), educational opportunities (e.g., integrated curricula, multifaceted student interaction), knowledge and technology transfer (e.g., publications, industrial outreach), and additional investments (e.g., in physical facilities and cyberinfrastructure). Finally, the venture capital and investing community would contribute expertise in licensing, spin-off companies, and other avenues of commercialization.

Some of the existing NSF-sponsored engineering research centers (ERCs) may serve as a starting point for the development of discovery-innovation institutes. Yet the multidisciplinary scope and scale of the research, education, innovation, and technology-transfer activities of fully developed discovery-innovation institutes will certainly dwarf the important, but more limited, activities of ERCs.

To ensure that the discovery-innovation institutes lead to transformative change, they should be funded at a level commensurate with past federal initiatives and current investments in other areas of research, such as biomedicine and manned spaceflight. Federal funding would ultimately increase to several billion dollars per year distributed throughout the engineering research and education enterprise; states, industry, foundations, and universities would invest comparable amounts.

The committee recognizes that current federal and state budgets are severely constrained and are likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. Nevertheless, as the public comes to understand the importance of leadership in technological innovation to the nation’s economic prosperity and security, the committee believes this initiative could be given a high priority in the federal budget process.

To transform the technological innovation capacity of the United States, the discovery-innovation institutes should be implemented on a national scale and backed by a strong commitment to excellence by all participants. Most of all, they would be engines of innovation that would transform institutions, policies, and cultures and enable our nation to solve critical problems and maintain its leadership in the global, knowledge-driven society of the twenty-first century.

This could be an excellent concept to push into the major energy bills expected later this year, but perhaps the same effort would be better spent reorganizing the Department of Energy itself to rectify some of those historical problems, rather than pushing for this kind of workaround? At least the new Secretary of Energy, Steven Chu, seems to be very aware of many of these issues, but it will take authority from congress to make effective changes. I don't think this Brookings report is sufficiently detailed or well-supported to convince congress and the administration to make the necessary changes, but it's at least a start!