By Jeffrey Mervis
The Department of Energy (DOE) has stopped processing the paperwork on tens of millions of dollars in research that its Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) has agreed to fund.
DOE officials aren’t saying why they have taken this unusual step, dubbed a “no-contract action.” It went into effect earlier this month and affects more than a dozen projects across four new ARPA-E programs. The move, first reported by Politico Pro, includes a gag order on ARPA-E program managers, leaving investigators in the dark about the status of their grants. The resulting uncertainty is having a devastating impact on research teams, scientists say, and even threatens the viability of small companies for whom these major awards are so important.
Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX), the top Democrat on the science committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, is concerned that the apparent contracting freeze might violate federal laws requiring agencies to spend appropriations from Congress—in this case, the $291 million that ARPA-E received for the 2016 fiscal year that ended last September. On Wednesday she wrote to DOE Secretary Rick Perry reminding him that “diversion or impoundment of this money would be contrary to law” and asking him whether the agency “is currently subject to a ‘no-contract action’ or similar action and, if so what the parameters are.”
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