There have, in the last few days, been two pilgrimages of high-ranking Washington officials to geek meccas that are worth noting, though only one of them made any real news. President Obama went to MIT to publicly state that denying climate change is now an extremist position. "The naysayers, the folks who would pretend that this is not an issue, they are being marginalized," Obama argued in Cambridge on Friday.
It's helpful for Obama to take such an aggressive stand, but it was Energy Secretary Steven Chu's trip to the Googleplex in Mountain View, California, that was arguably the more meaningful of the two trips. Chu was at Google headquarters yesterday to announce the first round of $150 million in funding under ARPA-E, the Department of Energy's experimental program for "high risk, high payoff concepts" for transformative energy technologies. The unfortunately named program was actually a Bush-era creation, though Bush never put an actual effort into getting it up and running, and Congress appropriated all of $0 for it at the time. Obama slipped $400 million into the stimulus for the program, and Chu announced today dozens of projects that just might help America find innovative solutions to our energy challenges, from entirely liquid batteries to a pair of bacteria that somehow, together, turn seaweed into butonol.
You might have guessed that ARPA-E is a play on DARPA, the Defense Department office that more or less brought us the Internet. But as promising as it is to have the president out selling the politics of energy innovation and the secretary of energy out handing away cash to stimulate creative discoveries, DARPA's story should serve as a reminder that there's still a leg of the stool missing when it comes to government research. DARPA withered after one senator decided that anything other than mission critical research isn't worth our tax dollars -- blame Mike Mansfield for the fact that we haven't cracked artificial intelligence yet. One innovation left to come is the provision of some sort of reliable funding for ARPA-E after its chunk of stimulus change runs out.