Proposed Policy Reforms
Empower the heads of the national laboratories
Individual national labs should be given the authority to independently engage in select private-sector partnership agreements. Currently, this authority is reserved by the Department of Energy officials. Reducing unnecessary overhead would decrease approval times and barriers to commercialization.
Facilitate private sector access to national laboratory resources
Opening our national lab resources to companies and inventors could significantly lower commercialization barriers. The labs already have secure facilities, high-tech equipment, and thousands of expert scientists. The heads of the national labs should be given more discretion to rent their resources to the private sector.
Implement the blue ribbon commission recommendations
Over 50 reports have proposed solutions to the deeply strained relationship between the national laboratories and the Department of Energy.1 One of the most recent, a 2014 report by a blue ribbon panel commissioned by Congress, made over 30 targeted recommendations that should be implemented.
- America’s national labs are a key cog in our country’s R&D machine
- Energy Department rules obstruct private-public partnerships and commercialization opportunities
- Our national laboratories should be given more freedom to operate
Our national laboratory system is one of America’s crown jewels. Run out of the Department of Energy, it boasts thousands of our nation’s brightest scientists, including 113 Nobel Laureates. Formed out of the Manhattan Project, the national laboratories are now tasked with translating basic scientific research to real life applications. The labs serve as a coalescing point, with over 30,000 academic and industrial scientists using major lab equipment each year.2
Caption: The national labs employ over 55,000 Americans at 17 different locations across the country
Since their rise to national prominence during World War II, virtually all the national labs have been government owned and privately run.4 The combination is a potent formula. Armed with the robust resources of a government agency and the agility of a private company, the national labs historically enjoyed volumes of success. For example, lab scientists discovered 17 new elements on the periodic table5, contributed in mapping the human genome, and laid the foundation for fracking technologies.6
The national labs serve as a critical bridge between academic research and private sector commercialization. Source: DOE National Laboratory Director’s Council, “The DOE National Labs: A Vital Network in the U.S. science and Technology Ecosystem”
Unfortunately, privately run means little today. The Energy Department, responding to poor performance of a few contractors, has adopted a heavy-handed management approach. National lab management, contractors themselves, are now constrained by a mountain of government rules. The “privately run” labs even take cues from the Energy Department down to the project level.7
Certainly, the Energy Department has a responsibility to hold its contractors up to high standards when dealing with nuclear and other high-risk research. The Department of Energy, however, micromanages low-risk activities as well, from human resource modules to small partnership agreements. Unnecessary layers of bureaucracy increase costs, waste time, and increase laboratory overhead. For example, some partnership contracts between national laboratories and industries take 3 to 6 months to iron out. These delays make our companies less competitive in today’s global economy.