A Foundation for DOE: An Idea Whose Time Has Come

(Ed. Note: The “Innovation Fact of the Week” appears as a regular feature in each edition of ITIF’s weekly email newsletter. Sign up today.)

Numerous federal agencies have non-profit, non-governmental foundations that work with them to advance their missions. The National Park Foundation (NPF) dates back to 1935. The CDC Foundation (CDCF) and the Foundation for NIH (FNIH) have made important contributions to public health during the pandemic. The flexibility and agility of such foundations allows them to undertake activities that complement and supplement those of their affiliated agencies. 

A similar foundation would help the Department of Energy achieve its missions, particularly accelerating clean energy and climate innovation. On April 22, Earth Day, Senators Chris Coons (D-DE), Ben Ray Luján (D-NM), and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) introduced the Partnerships for Energy Security and Innovation Act (S.1359), which would set one up. In this post, we briefly explain how such foundations work, discuss what a DOE foundation might do, and describe recent progress toward establishing one since the ITIF report, Mind the Gap: A Design for a New Energy Technology Commercialization Foundation, was published a year ago. 

Agency-Affiliated Foundations: Surprisingly Common, Highly Diverse

The notion of a private foundation affiliated with a federal agency may seem unusual, but it is actually well-established.  A December 2019 report by the Congressional Research Service highlights the stated goals and potential benefits of these entities. Agency-affiliated foundations like NPF, CDCF, and FNIH can provide a flexible and efficient mechanism for establishing public-private R&D partnerships and increase technology transfer and the commercialization of federally funded research and development (R&D), to name a few. 

congressionally-mandated report by the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) published in January 2021 reviews eleven of them. In addition to NPF, CDCF, and FNIH, there are the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR), which works with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA); the Henry M. Jackson Foundation for the Advancement of Military Medicine, which collaborates with the Department of Defense (DOD); the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, which supports the missions of the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and U.S. Forest Service (USFS); and so on.

The NAPA report describes points of commonality among these foundations, notably their roles in leveraging federal investment with private contributions while guarding against the potential for conflict of interest. Yet, what is most remarkable is their diversity. Each seeks to complement and supplement its partner agency, but because each agency is different and has a different mission, each affiliated foundation is unique.

Accelerating Innovation and Discovery Through Agile Partnerships

Because advancing scientific discovery and accelerating technological innovation are so crucial for achieving DOE’s mission, agency-affiliated foundations that foster research, development, demonstration, and technology commercialization offer the most relevant models for a DOE foundation. For example, the FFAR was created by Congress to strengthen U.S. leadership in agriculture by supplementing USDA’s basic and applied research activities. It has made particularly good use of prizes and challenges, like the Egg-Tech Prize, to drive R&D by a diverse set of institutions.

The successes of FNIH and CDCF during the pandemic illustrate how having a flexible non-profit partner for an agency can advance the agency’s mission in a moment of need. CDCF donors have committed $249 million since the beginning of the pandemic, meeting the urgent needs of first responders and health care professionals, and creating tools, capabilities, and improvements for future emergencies. FNIH established the Pandemic Response Fund to search for potential COVID-19 treatments and vaccines.

FNIH and NIH, working together and in partnership with over a dozen private-sector companies and five government divisions (including the European Medicines Agency), also launched the Accelerating COVID-19 Therapeutic Interventions and Vaccines (ACTIV) partnership. This collaboration brings government and private sector infrastructure and subject matter expertise together to “develop a collaborative framework for prioritizing vaccine and drug candidates, streamlining clinical trials, [and] coordinating regulatory processes,” to respond to COVID-19 and future pandemics. 

What a DOE Foundation Could Do

The new DOE foundation bill builds on these precedents in other agencies and on the bipartisan IMPACT for Energy Act(S.2005 and H.R.3575), which Senators Chris Coons (D-DE) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), along with Representatives Ben Ray Luján (D-NM) and Joe Wilson (R-SC) sponsored during the past two Congresses. The House of Representatives passed the IMPACT for Energy Act in the Clean Economy Jobs and Innovation Act in September 2020. The ongoing interest of the Congress sparked the development of a body of work that has refined and developed the concept through hearings and reports. 

Our May 2020 “Mind the Gap” report for ITIF called for the creation of an Energy Technology Commercialization Foundation that would help move clean energy and climate technologies more quickly across the fabled “valley of death” between proof of concept and early adoption in the market. These efforts would be organized around cross-cutting national challenges and strengthen regional energy innovation ecosystems. The foundation would be congressionally-authorized to facilitate public-private collaborations involving DOE’s massive network of experts and innovators, anchored in its 17 national laboratories. 

Other energy innovation experts have explored the potential role of a DOE foundation and concluded that it has the potential to help address the climate crisis and transition the US to a clean energy economy. In June 2020, the House Select Committee on The Climate Crisis’s report, Solving the Climate Crisis, recommended the establishment of a DOE Foundation “to coordinate public-private philanthropic partnerships and fund clean energy innovation and commercialization.”  In a series of public workshops conducted by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine in July 2020, several speakers confirmed that a DOE foundation could be a useful new mechanism to enhance federal clean energy innovation. For example, DOE Under Secretary for Science Paul Dabbar stated a DOE foundation could “raise private-sector funds and create and manage alliances with public and private institutions.” This sentiment was echoed by former ARPA-E Director and Jay Precourt Provostial Chair Professor at Stanford University, Arun Majumdar. 

NAPA’s report concurred that a DOE foundation would be a valuable asset to the agency. Like our report, it laid out complementary and supplementary roles such a foundation could play, particularly accelerating technology transfer, broadly conceived and creating public-private partnerships. NAPA envisioned the foundation working across all of DOE’s non-classified mission space, including science and national security as well as clean energy and climate. It also called for a networked approach in which the foundation would work closely with local foundations affiliated with DOE’s national laboratories in regions around the country.

Next Steps

With this body of work and several years of deliberation behind it, the DOE foundation is an idea whose time has come. A group of more than 60 stakeholders, ranging from non-profit organizations and think-tanks like ours to companies, investors and professional associations, have signed a letter of support for it. The president has focused national attention on the critical importance of sustained innovation to counter the climate crisis and has assigned DOE a leading role in this effort. 

Congress should consider jumpstarting the DOE foundation with a modest appropriation for the fiscal year 2022, which begins in September. The foundation would then be ready to move quickly when authorized by the Coons-Lujan-Graham bill, which might cross the finish line as part of a broader energy and climate package during the current session.