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Congress eyes R&D spending to counter offshoring of jobs

House, Senate deal would also create a DARPA clone, increase federal venture funding

August 1, 2007 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - WASHINGTON -- The high-tech community owes much to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) for some of its ground-breaking research efforts, including the creation of Arpanet, which evolved into the Internet. Now, Congress is ready to create something similar to focus on energy research as part of a deal reached this week between the two houses of Congress.

Lawmakers in the U.S. House and Senate said they have agreed to spend $43 billion over three years to double government funding for basic scientific research. That includes funding to create the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy or ARPA-E, with an initial budget of $300 million for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.

ARPA-E, which will be modeled after DARPA, will be part of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). The legislation is expected to win approval this week, although it only authorizes funding; separate votes will be needed to fund it.

In a conference call today, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), a key negotiator for the Senate, said the legislation is a "direct response to the challenge to our country to keep our brainpower advantage at a time when other rapidly growing countries like India and China are increasing their technological initiatives."

The intent of ARPA-E is to "to look for high-risk, high-rewards type of technology; if we're really going to become energy independent, it's going to take a bump in technology, so this may be the most important energy bill that we will pass," said Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), chair of the House Science and Technology Committee and another legislator involved in negotiations.

The ARPA-E funding is part of a bill with this tongue-twisting title: The America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education and Science (COMPETES) Act. The final version will reconcile proposals in House Bill 2271 and Senate Bill 761.

The measure would provide a total of $17 billion to the DOE, as well as $22 billion to the National Science Foundation over the next two years, with the goal of doubling its budget over the next seven years. The legislation will also keep the federal government in the business of funding technology projects too risky for venture capital.

The Bush administration has been seeking to kill the Advanced Technology Program (ATP) and argued, in prepping last year's federal budget, that private-sector funding is available to fund these projects and that "there is little evidence of the need for this federal program."

This year's measure would create a new Technology Innovation Program (TIP), with a goal similar to the ATP effort. The new program would start with $100 million next year, with that amount rising to $131.5 and then $140.5 million in subsequent years. It provides ongoing funding for current projects and sets aside $40 million per year for new ones. It's limited to small and midsize companies

The ATP program received $60 million in this year's budget and has come close to being eliminated in the past.

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