Defending ARPA

Guest post by Christopher Miller

Chris Miller, a Truman National Security Project fellow, was a sergeant in the U.S. Army’s 1st Armored Division through two tours in Iraq, during which he earned a Purple Heart, and an adviser to the Iraqi Army. After returning to the U.S., he was involved with VoteVets.org and Operation Free, travelling the country as part of the Veterans for American Power Tour. He is currently studying British and European law.

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When it comes to the budget and debt, the knives have come out in Washington. And the key phrase seems to be, “everything is on the table.” Conservatives want to put our energy security and independence on the table, as well. And it seems they want to do it for reasons more political than fiscal. The debt must be trimmed, but it cannot come at the expense of our national or future energy security.

Recently The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, published a report supporting greatly scaling back funding for the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE), calling much of what it does “wasteful and unnecessary.” They claim that the DoE must stick to its role of promoting national and economic energy security from “traditional” sources. They also cling to the conservative article of faith that the private sector can innovate better without government support.

With the national gas price average hovering around $4 a gallon following two years of steady price increases, the DoE’s efforts to research new fuel technologies seem to be very necessary and no waste. DoE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) is working on non-oil liquid fuels from abundantly available domestic sources that would eventually produce significantly cheaper prices at the pump.

ARPA-E is based upon the model of a more famous agency: DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Though others claim it, the truth is that DARPA invented the internet, as well as GPS technology, advanced microchips, and even Velcro. Additionally, they developed stealth technology, guided missiles, and unmanned aerial drones, all of which have greatly contributed to the success of our military.

ARPA-E and DARPA have been praised as models of “lean” bureaucracy and focus on high-risk, high-reward ideas within a relatively small budget. They also highlight the fact that the government can drive innovation. This pays dividends not only for our energy needs and national security, but for our economy as a whole, since the private sector tends to build on these innovations. The private sector application of the internet, GPS, and nuclear energy are examples. We wouldn’t have nuclear power if it weren’t for the government’s Manhattan Project, and imagine business without the internet or transport without GPS.

The Heritage Foundation report claims that the private sector can do the job better. The facts tend to disagree with them. Many of the research projects cited in the report as private sector examples of new energy research and development are in fact public-private partnerships, receiving vital funding from federal agencies such as the DoE, NASA, the National Science Foundation, and the military.

Recent business trends, especially since the economic downturn, show that private companies are not willing to invest large amounts of money in new research and development. The energy sector invests only 0.3% of its revenue in new R&D projects. Another inconsistency is that the report claims to support a continuing role for ARPA-E but wants to cut out virtually all of its funding. ARPA-E was only recently fully funded as part of the 2008 stimulus plan, and conservatives essentially want to pull the plug already, while claiming to support it.

Why would anyone be against these agencies? Cutting the DoE budget would only save a very small amount of money and would come at great expense as oil prices continue to rise and America falls behind in the energy race. Clearly, part of it is ideological. Conservatives believe, falsely, that energy research should stay with the private sector, despite government research and funding being responsible for its development. The other part is political. President Obama has unveiled the development of new energy technologies as a vital part of his Energy Security Blueprint. GOP conservatives have shown themselves ready to stand in the way of anything the White House wants.

Again, conservatives are playing political games with national security. Our energy future requires an investment now and shouldn’t fall victim to ideological or political gamesmanship. The benefits of continuing energy research are clear for our national security and independent energy future. It will benefit American families by cutting our dependence on volatile and expensive petroleum; eliminate our dependence on importing foreign oil; keep our troops from having to secure our energy sources overseas; cut business’ energy costs; create new jobs and private-sector industries; and lead to clean, American sources of energy and technology we can market elsewhere. We can afford to pay a small price now for these dividends in the future.