This was Arun Majumdar’s last week as director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E). His leadership will be missed, but he leaves the agency in great shape and also left clean energy stakeholders with some final thoughts via an insightful phone interview with The New York Times.
Majumdar starts by counseling patience in regard to the energy innovation process, noting, “In the energy sector, it takes sometimes a decade or more for new technologies to flourish and scale in size and volume. It’s not just the technology that one has to innovate. There are things like finance and many, many other aspects that are important.” He also makes the important point – one that ITIF has continuously emphasized – that policymakers should not be scared off by failure, pointing out that success in any one of ARPA-E’s investments would be a “game changer” and in any case, the agency now has the “discipline and the process of understanding when to discontinue the project and not waste taxpayer money when we think it’s not panning out.”
ARPA-E’s founding director also touches on the importance of a government role in energy innovation and notes that the agency’s projects fill a “white space, a gap in our national portfolio of technologies.” Perhaps Majumdar’s most interesting comments, however, were on the agency’s investment decision-making process:
The question we ask is that, yes, the idea is fascinating, the idea is big, it is a potential game changer, but we don’t know whether it’s going to work or not.
We need research to review this idea. But then we ask, “If this idea works, if this is successful, will it matter? Will people pay attention? Will it scale in cost and volume? And will the private sector be interested if the research that we fund pans out?” That question is an important one, that is, “Is it relevant?”
We’re not doing basic science that is exploratory. We’re translating science into technologies that, if successful, will have a potentially large impact on society, and a large commercial impact. [Emphasis added].
The interview is very much worth reading in its entirety. In any case, even as Majumdar returns to California, it’s good to know that his successor, Eric Toone, is cut from the same cloth. “Let me dispel all the mystery. Eric Toone has been in this organization from before I was there,” Majumdar related to Politico (subscription article), going on to describe the new director as having an “absolutely stellar record” in his research field. Hopefully, Toone will continue the good work that Majumdar started.
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons