From Energy to Agriculture and Back Again with Dr. David Babson
Dr. David Babson currently serves as a Program Director at ARPA-E, where he focuses on bioenergy, agricultural systems innovation, and carbon management. Prior to joining ARPA-E, Dr. Babson served as a Senior Advisor in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of the Chief Scientist, a Technology Manager in DOE’s Bioenergy Technologies Office, and a Senior Fuels Engineer at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
We recently sat down with Dr. Babson to discuss how he became interested in energy, his journey serving in various roles across the federal government, and the future of bioenergy and agricultural systems.
How did you first become interested in energy?
I became interested in renewable energy and sustainability after learning about the carbon cycle during an undergraduate ecosystems class. Learning about the natural carbon cycle and then observing the disruptions imposed on it by carbon emissions – the primary driver of climate change – created my interest energy systems. I originally didn’t have a specific interest in energy, but rather an interest in addressing the impact that our energy system is having on the environment and climate. Ultimately my interest in sustainability led me to a career in energy.
You started at DOE in the Department’s Bioenergy Technologies Office, then spent some time working for USDA’s Chief Scientist – what brought you back to Energy and to ARPA-E?
Since my portfolio at USDA included renewable energy, and I still worked extensively with DOE to coordinate efforts around shared interests, I felt like I never really left DOE. In fact, I was always trying to bring a little bit of DOE to USDA. At USDA, I became very interested in ARPA-E as a model for how to fund disruptive technology to solve big challenges, as USDA deals with a lot of big environmental challenges. As I learned more about the complex and highly diverse challenges that USDA scientists and the Agriculture and land sectors face more broadly, I became convinced that USDA needed its own advanced research projects agency – an ARPA-Ag – modeled after ARPA-E.
While interacting with ARPA-E from that perspective, to inform how to structure a potential ARPA-Ag, I had the chance to pitch a program to ARPA-E. Following that successful pitch, the opportunity to establish and build a focused program to develop technologies to manage carbon was something I couldn’t pass-up, and is what brought me back to Energy and ARPA-E.
You also served as an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science and Technology Policy Fellow with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) before heading to the Union of Concerned Scientists. How will those more policy-focused experiences impact your work as a PD?
Working at the intersection of science, technology, and policy enabled me to understand how policy influences technology development and adoption. As a PD, my focus is on a future “new carbon” economy that removes and manages carbon. I understand that there may be a different policy environment undergirding this future economy, but the policy variability is not something ARPA-E is focused on. Instead ARPA-E focuses on technology and sets its own ambitious performance and cost targets that could allow new technologies to be deployed and scaled in any environment.
What differentiates your approach to federal bioenergy R&D here at ARPA-E from your related work in the bioenergy space at USDA, DOE-BETO and the EPA?
One big difference is that my approach at ARPA-E is supported by the agency’s flexible operating model. At ARPA-E, I’m able to frame the motivation, research scope, and metrics for new programs on the future bioeconomy. Unlike my past roles, my work here focuses exclusively on the breakthrough technologies necessary to realize that vision. The programs I’m developing are informed by expert scientists and data-driven analyses, focusing on realizing disruptive breakthroughs that address major challenges in a relatively short timeframe. The sheer ambition and urgency also distinguishes ARPA-E because my previous work in government relied on roadmaps and longer time horizons.
What makes you optimistic about the future of bioenergy in the United States, and are there any specific technology areas that you think are on the edge of a breakthrough?
I’m optimistic because more and more people are becoming aware of the global energy and climate challenges we face and the need for sustainable technologies to address those challenges. Because the bioeconomy can offer products to reduce carbon emissions, it’s critical that efforts continue to develop and promote technologies that will expand the bioeconomy sustainably. One major concern that I have regarding the expansion of the bioeconomy is that we minimize land use by maximizing the efficiency of bioprocessing systems. I think we are really close to breakthroughs in these two areas – maximizing bioprocess carbon efficiency and enabling low-cost atmospheric CO2 removal, utilization and management – and I think ARPA-E can help us get even closer.