Trump Admin fires first shots in its new War on Science

The first shots of the Trump Administration’s War on Science have been fired, and scientists everywhere should worry.

With the approval of Secretary Rick Perry, the Department of Energy (DOE) has stopped processing the paperwork that would fund millions of dollars in advanced energy research – and it refuses to tell the scientists why.

It’s also refusing to explain why they’ve decided to take the widespread “no-contract option” in early April, but scientists currently involved in Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) projects are wondering if they’ll ever get the money.

The decision to withhold money at ARPA-E should worry anyone who believes in the missions of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and the Sunshot Initiative. If the DOE could do this with such high-profile energy projects, what could it do to lesser-known – but no less vital – research arms elsewhere?

But the decision to halt funding at ARPA-E could also stop vital renewable-energy research in its tracks.

In December, the DOE announced $33 million in funding for a new program it called Network Optimized Distributed Energy Systems (NODES), in which project teams would develop technologies that coordinate load and generation on the grid to create a virtual energy storage system.

The 12 projects funded under the NODES umbrella included projects dealing with everything from energy storage, maximizing the amount of renewable energy the U.S. grid can handle to creating open and scalable distributed energy resource networks – and that’s just three projects.

At press time, it’s unclear if these projects are affected by the current funding-freeze/information blackout.

That the Trump Administration is taking these actions is not entirely surprising. Its officials, including high-ranking officials like EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and the president himself, have expressed disdain for scientists and science, particularly in cases where the scientific findings don’t comport with their pre-conceived notions of what is fact or not. And in an Administration where “alternative facts” are considered reality, scientific facts, as well as the research that develops them, take on a less important role in decision-making.

In addition, the 2018 budget rolled out by the president marked ARPA-E for elimination, though bipartisan support for the organization, which was started in 2007, might make elimination difficult.

There is no word yet on whether NREL scientists and Sunshot Initiative recipients will receive the same treatment as those at ARPA-E – but the solar industry should keep a close eye on those two organizations to ensure the next solar-industry breakthrough is not killed before it even makes it out of the lab.