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Inside the Beltway: Galvin Commission Proposes "Bold" Alternative for DOE Labs

Citing excessive micromanagement on the part of Congress and the Department of Energy, the eagerly anticipated report of the Task Force on Alternative Futures for the DOE Laboratories, released in February, called for the government to divest its authority and corporatize the laboratories. Chaired by former Motorola CEO Robert Galvin, the task force was appointed a year ago and charged with proposing alternate futures for the DOE laboratories.

To some, transforming the national laboratories into government corporations may seem like a radical solution, but Galvin disagrees. "We prefer to think of it as bold," he said. He maintains that there are legal precedents in the form of existing government corporations, which include mixed-ownership companies like Amtrak and the Federal Home Loan Banks, as well as wholly owned companies like the Commodity Credit Corporation and the United States Enrichment Corporation (USEC). In addition, the corporatization, privatization, or management restructuring of several other federal agencies (for example, the EPA laboratories) is currently under discussion.

If the Galvin Commission's proposal is adopted, the DOE laboratories would be managed by an independent nonprofit corporation, with a Presidentially-appointed Board of Trustees culled from the private sector. Galvin predicts that the government could realize savings of 30 percent to 60 percent in the budgets for the 10 major laboratories, which currently total $6.8 billion.

In her preliminary response to the commission report, DOE Secretary of Energy Hazel O'Leary called the recommendation to corporatize the laboratories "an unprecedented approach," and said she planned to ask the full Secretary of Energy Advisory Board to further assess the commission's proposal and its implications. However, she later ruled out a "drastic restructuring" of the laboratory system at a press conference held prior to the report's official release.

Other recommendations offered in the commission's report included focusing on the labs' traditional functions of national security, energy and environmental research, and basic research, rather than identifying new mission areas; moving away from the cooperative R&D partnerships with industry, which the commission found to be "unfocused"; and shifting nuclear weapons design and development from Livermore to Los Alamos to consolidate some of the redundancy in the DOE laboratory system.

For the most part, the Galvin Commission's recommendations were warmly received by the physics community. In a letter to Robert Walker (R-PA), chair of the House Science Committee, APS President C. Kumar N. Patel (University of California, Los Angeles) concurred with the need to end excessive oversight and micromanagement of DOE labs, create a knowledge base for environmental cleanup, ensure integrity of the stockpile, and encourage interaction with industry and academia.


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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin