Striving for a Healthier Relationship between the National Labs and Department of Energy

UPDATE 29 February 2016: The DOE agrees with the reviewing commission that the DOE laboratories have a critical role separate from universities and the private sector. DOE’s official response to the Commission is organized around the six target areas from the reviewer’s report: (1) recognizing value; (2) rebuilding trust; (3) maintaining alignment and quality; (4) maximizing impact; (5) managing effectiveness and efficiency; and (6) ensuring lasting change.

Washington, D.C. – Congress held hearings recently to discuss the national energy laboratories, including Argonne National Lab and Los Alamos National Lab, and their relationship with the Department of Energy, following a report released by a commission of experts.

The Commission to Review the Effectiveness of the National Energy Laboratories’ final report was released on October 25, 2015. The Commission formed in May 2014 and held monthly meetings from July 2014 to July 2015 to evaluate DOE’s 17 energy laboratories. The Commission determined how well the laboratories aligned with DOE’s strategic priorities, assessed possible duplication among labs and evaluated the laboratories’ ability to meet current and future energy and national security challenges, among other issues.

The commission reviewed the overhead costs the laboratories face and the impact of DOE’s oversight and management approach, especially relating to laboratory directed research and development. The commission also advised increased funding for DOE and its laboratories, which has stagnated under Continuing Resolutions.

NASA postdocs testing rocket/satellitelaunching equipment.

Chris Radke and Terrence Meyer, NASA postdocs, are setting up to test rocket/satellite launching equipment at Argonne National Laboratory. The postdocs are part of a team studying fuel mixes for use in future missions to Mars. Credit: Argonne National Laboratory.

Interest from both sides of the Hill

The Senate Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, under the Committee on Appropriations, held a hearing on October 28 and the House Subcommittee on Energy, under the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, held a hearing on November 18 to review the Commissions’ recommendations.

“Our national laboratory system is critical to our nation’s competitiveness, national security, and way of life,” Senate Energy Subcommittee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) said in a statement.  “National laboratories are the engines that help create new, cutting-edge technologies that can transform our economy.”

“Each of the 17 labs has distinct characteristics and capabilities that bring a unique set of challenges when it comes to management, oversight, safety and security,” House Energy Subcommittee Chairman Randy Weber (R-TX) said in a statement.

Senators and Representatives invited TJ Glauthier and Jared Cohon, Co-Chairs of the Commission, and Representatives included Peter Littlewood, the Director of the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois to testify.

“Our most fundamental concerns and conclusions deal with the relationship between the Department of Energy and the National Labs. We find that the trusted relationship that is supposed to exist between the federal government and its national labs is broken and it’s inhibiting performance,” Glauthier said in a statement during both hearings.

Rebuilding trust

The commission report states, “The intended relationship between DOE and the National Energy Laboratories is as trusted partners, working together to carry out critical missions for the Nation.” The government is responsible for establishing the “what” and the laboratories are in charge of the “how,” the report continues.

Since the relationship between DOE and the laboratories is on rocky ground, Congress and others need to restore the trust between the two by setting annual operating plans that give the laboratories freedom to work as they like as long as they maintain transparency and achieve success, according to the report. “Laboratories that earn DOE’s trust should enjoy greater freedom to operate, while others will continue to experience heightened DOE oversight and control,” the report states.

Each laboratory has a different relationship to DOE, Glauthier said, and “in particular, the Labs that are overseen by the Office of Science generally have much better relationships with DOE than do those in the other program offices,” he said in his statement.

Glauthier emphasized the report’s recommendation that Congress and the Presidential Administration set up a standing body of experienced people who could provide perspective and advice on issues relating to the laboratories, instead of constantly creating new commissions. Glauthier and Cohon led the 56th commission to review the laboratories.

DOE oversight

Glauthier, who is president of a company that advises energy companies and agencies, said that the DOE spends too much time on transactional oversight, including inspections, which detracts the laboratories from research.

Cohon, a professor of civil and environmental engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, said DOE needs to instead focus its oversight on identifying duplication among its laboratories. Although duplication is crucial as new fields of science emerge, there comes a point when the science becomes clearer and a particular approach surges ahead as the most reliable and accurate, Cohon said. It is at that point that DOE needs to step in so that time isn’t wasted on multiple approaches, Cohon continued.

Littlewood said that he and fellow national lab directors endorse the commission’s recommendations, and agree that DOE oversight is important, but to a point. He and other lab directors want to reintroduce acceptable risk taking, which the commission also recommends. Instead of celebrating success, the system punishes failure, Littlewood said. He hopes the commission’s report will create an atmosphere where scientists and engineers are proud to take risks that could lead to critical discoveries.

“I encourage the Department of Energy to seriously consider the recommendations in this report that aim to create the right balance between appropriate oversight of the labs and entrusting them with more independence to pursue innovative and cost-effective solutions to addressing DOE’s mission needs,” Ranking Member of the Science, Space, and Technology Committee Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) said in a statement.

By Elizabeth Goldbaum, GSA Science Policy Fellow

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