Given DARPA’s track record, I’ve often wondered why there wasn’t a domestic version. Apparently Steven Chu has been wondering about the same thing.
Fortunately, Chu’s wondering is more potent than mine; in 2006 he worked on an NAS project that proposed such an agency, and now that he’s Secretary of Energy DoE is rolling out ARPA-e, the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy, using some stimulus money to pay for it.
Early projects: bacteria that will make gasoline, enzymes that will capture carbon dioxide to counter global warming, and batteries so cheap that they will allow the use of solar power all night long.
Of course, the whole point of such an agency is to fund a bunch of low-probability, high-impact bets. That means that most of the money spent by ARPA-e will be “wasted.” Fortunately, William Proxmire is no longer around handing out “Golden Fleece” awards to research projects he didn’t understand (one went to the paper that discovered the freon/ozone problem), but ARPA-E will be lucky if it escapes similar heckling from the current generation of obscurantist demagogues.
Now, how about starting something like this in the Department of Education? There’s a field that could use some out-of-the-box thinking.