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European Innovation Council needs leading innovators and a sense of urgency

Former chair of the US House of Representatives science committee Bart Gordon shares lessons he learned from setting up the innovation funding body ARPA-E, to promote advanced energy projects

Former US congressman Bart Gordon
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The EU’s European Innovation Council should be run by top innovators on short-term contracts and restrict its ambitions to three or four high-risk projects per year, according to Bart Gordon, former US congressman.

As chair of the science committee in the US House of Representatives, Gordon helped establish the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, or ARPA-E, in 2007 to fund breakthrough energy innovations. The agency has been cited by the European Commission as an influential model for the EIC, which will launch in pilot mode in the autumn.

The most important component for any research office is the brainpower you get to lead it, Gordon told Science|Business. He is not involved in any of the EU's plans to create the new Council, but was willing to share some lessons he picked up from ARPA-E. 

“An agency like this is really all about the people you have run it,” he said. “You need to bring in the best and the brightest as programme managers to vet the best ideas.”

The idea for ARPA-E was to create a nimble organisation along the lines of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a Pentagon research arm, which can back the kind of technologies the private sector deems too risky.

Gordon said the creators of the agency wanted to keep the leadership on its toes, and this meant assigning people short-term contracts. “We wanted a sense of urgency from our managers so we put a two-year limit on how long they could be employed with us, with the option of getting a third year,” he said.

The agency started out with an open call for ideas but was forced to change tack after demand went through the roof. “We began with an open solicitation but there were so many proposals coming in that our computers broke down,” said Gordon. “After that, we realised we needed to think more carefully about the kind of breakthroughs we wanted – and build the whole thing around these.”

The agency narrowed its focus, selecting three or four ambitious goals a year for researchers to respond to. “For example, we had a contest to redesign gas tanks for vehicles to make them smaller. Another challenge was to design a safe fuelling pump to go in a person’s garage,” Gordon said.

Giving the agency room to work away from the rough and tumble of politics was considered vital. “The people at ARPA-E took pride in being separate from the main apparatus; people couldn’t meddle with it. It was an agency in the Department of Energy but the Secretary for Energy helped shield it from bureaucracy. It followed different rules: we fixed it up where they could hire someone almost the same day,” he said. 

Politics eventually forced its way into the innovation office and today the programme is under threat of closure, with US President Donald Trump proposing earlier this year to slash its funding from $290 million in 2017 to just $20 million in 2018, a 93 per cent decrease.

This comes after the agency faced criticism from The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, which argued that too much of the agency’s early money went to companies that had previously received private investment for similar technology, and that in other words ARPA-E was not always backing the ideas most in need of support.

The future of ARPA-E looks precarious, but for now cuts have been avoided. “There was a concern that the administration would cut off pre-approved funding but they backed away from that,” said Gordon.

There is hope that the office can remain open. Earlier this month, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine released the results of a favourable study that found ARPA-E is broadly meeting its goals. It cited some good figures: 74 of the agency's projects have raised $1.8 billion in private funding and 56 have formed new companies.

Gordon, who today works as a lobbyist for clean energy, nanotechnology, and innovation in general at one of Washington’s biggest lobbying and law firms, K&L Gates, believes the programme retains support from lawmakers in both parties and is optimistic it will be saved.

“My hope is that Congress will maintain ARPA-E. It will not get the kind of increase in budget it would like, but it should remain in the $300 million range,” he said.

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Related subjects: EIC, European Innovation Council