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The Future of the National Labs

By Congressman Steven H. Schiff (R-NM), Chairman, House Subcommittee on Basic Research

SchiffIn recent years, the debate over science and technology policy, like the debate over many other public policy issues, has become increasingly partisan. I personally find this to be a very discouraging trend. Shaping science and technology policy should be a bipartisan effort where both houses of Congress, the Administration, and the private sector work together. It is in this latter mode that I would like to discuss the future of the Department of Energy's national laboratories as multi-mission research and development entities and the critical role that emerging partnerships with universities and the industrial sector will play in their future.

The national laboratories were created near the end of World War II, at a time when the United States and the rest of the free world were faced with one of the greatest threats to freedom and liberty ever imagined. The United States responded to this threat in part by allocating enormous resources to atomic weapons development. Because the President and the Congress were concerned about military control of such a physically and psychologically powerful weapon, an independent agency was created to manage the weapons program. That agency and its current successor, the DOE, have successfully managed this effort for better than five decades.

Now, in the aftermath of the Cold War, the national security threat has not gone away, but just changes. We face new challenges in the form of rogue dictators who wish to acquire their own nuclear weapons; global hot spots of civil and religious strife; the responsibility to dismantle aging nuclear weapons; and environmental clean-up, the legacy of 50 years of weapons production. The scientists, engineers, and technicians at the DOE's weapons laboratories helped enable us to win World War II and the Cold War. The physical and intellectual infrastructure created to achieve these goals is now uniquely poised to help meet the new challenges.

The future of the national laboratories depends in part on what happens to their parent agency, the Department of Energy, but these futures are somewhat separable. I believe that the way to most effectively utilize the national laboratories is to continue to house them at DOE. There are those in Congress who, in striving to balance the federal budget, eliminate the deficit and debt and downsize government, would dismantle DOE and subject the national laboratories to the whims of a commission modeled after the Defense Departments Base Closure and Realignment Commission that was established to close military bases. I would like to explain why I think that this is a misguided effort.

First, I too am strongly supportive of efforts to balance the budget. And, I am under no illusions that DOE and its laboratories should be exempt from this effort. However, there are several compelling reasons why eliminating the DOE and subjecting the labs to a -closure commission is ill-advised. Perhaps the most important reason is national security. As previously noted, nuclear weapons have been managed by a civilian agency since 1946. In closing DOE, Congress would have to find a sponsor for the management of the nuclear activities as well as all other functions of the agency deemed necessary to the nation. The most frequently discussed sponsor for the nuclear and other defense activities is the Department of Defense. Yet it is widely believed that housing these programs at DOD will erode public confidence and undermine support for the nuclear weapons programs among those who believe that such activities must be under civilian control. In addition, DOD no longer seeks to re-acquire this program.

Further, over the years the DOE has built a world-class system of scientific and engineering laboratories to support its nuclear weapons research and development mission which is integrated with its civilian missions of energy supply, environmental, and basic science research. Moving the nuclear weapons program to DOD, thereby separating national security research from other basic science, energy, and environmental research would destroy a synergism that has benefited all the research performed by DOE. Non-defense research has proved advantageous to nuclear weapons researchers when these activities are performed simultaneously at the laboratories and when labs collaborate with industry and universities. Much of the non-defense research is very basic in nature, and, through dual purpose technology transfer, helps to leverage the weapons research. The multi-disciplinary nature of the laboratories and the research performed there also enables DOE to attract scientists who might otherwise be deterred by the recent trend of decreasing defense budgets from pursuing careers at the laboratories.

Second, I believe that separating the national laboratories from a terminated DOE will leave these entities vulnerable and underutilized. These laboratories make relevant and important contributions in national and energy security, environmental integrity, and economic vitality. There are many problems facing America and the world that the private sector is unable to solve on its own, and for which the basic research capabilities at the laboratories have a unique niche.

The nation's scientific and technical base depends very much on the future of the DOE laboratories. The DOE is the fourth largest federal research and development agency. The research performed at the laboratories is a vital part of the infrastructure that will educate our future generations of scientists and engineers, without which neither national nor economic security can be guaranteed.

In an effort to ensure that DOE and its national laboratories survive to -continue to provide our society with all the aforementioned benefits, let me explain my prescription for a leaner, meaner, and more efficient DOE laboratory structure.

Last year, I introduced legislation that defines a three step process by which the Secretary of Energy, in conjunction with Congress and other interested parties, first defines missions for the laboratories, then establishes the criteria for assignment of those missions to laboratories, and finally directs the Secretary to assign a mission or missions to individual labs and possibly streamline the labs themselves through the consolidation of programs or the transfer of facilities or programs. The legislation takes many recommendations from last year's Galvin Task Force report, which found that the lack of clear, well-defined missions resulted in a lack of focus at the laboratories. This report and others found that the laboratories took it upon themselves to develop broad and general mission definitions which do not necessarily meet the political and budgetary realities of the post Cold War era. This conclusion gives credibility to those who would argue that the labs are shopping for things to do. My legislation, H.R. 2142, provides a remedy for this by having the Secretary assign missions consistent with and complementary to the departments core missions. These missions are national security, energy research, basic scientific research, and environmental restoration. An additional mission area to be defined by Presidential prerogative is provided as well.

H.R. 2142 also encourages the laboratories to continue to enter into partnerships with industry, universities, and other agencies of the federal government if and only if these ventures further an assigned core mission. Technology transfer from national labs to industry and in reverse, although frequently and erroneously referred to by some as "corporate welfare," is collaborative work on problems of mutual interest. In fact, the term "technology transfer" has been a misnomer because it implies a one way street in the traffic of scientific knowledge. This kind of leveraging is mandatory for the future because, as budgets are reduced, maintaining the critical mass of researchers and technicians at the laboratories to perform even the most fundamental national security missions will not otherwise be possible.

A good example of how this works is a partnership between Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company and Sandia National Laboratory in my Congressional district in New Mexico. This collaboration has improved the modeling and simulation codes that Sandia uses to solve nuclear weapon component design problems that previously could not be accomplished. Goodyear tire design programs benefited from access to design and experimental techniques used and developed in the nuclear weapons program. This is just one example of how dual use technology leverages, indeed often enables, mission oriented research.

One final point needs to be made on partnerships. The world is becoming an increasingly competitive marketplace for U.S. companies. Industry must support its own competitive commercial research that is focused on product development, improvement, and marketing. But, when the project is consistent with their missions, laboratories should be permitted to partner with the industrial sector to help develop technology and standards. This is not "corporate welfare." It's part of a good strategy for ensuring that America can compete and win in this increasingly competitive global marketplace.

Finally, in an effort to ensure that the future of the laboratories guarantees that they are able to focus on research and not paperwork, my bill directs the DOE to transfer existing health, safety, and environmental regulation of the labs to other appropriate regulatory agencies that already have the responsibility. Self-regulation has become cumbersome and inefficient, requiring thousands of people on a payroll to oversee and prescribe detailed papers on how jobs should be done. This has resulted in the labs hiring more staff or reallocating research and development resources to respond to the myriad of directives. The result is increased overhead, poor morale, and the largely useless redirection of scarce research dollars. Recent reports to the Secretary of Energy have suggest that externalizing regulation will substantially improve the management of the laboratories, release scarce resources, and enhance productivity and public health and safety.

The future success of our nation and the world is tied to science and technology. The federal government must continue to play an important role in the promotion and support of scientific endeavors. I am optimistic that the Administration and Congress can rise to the occasion and set about working together to create a forward looking science and technology policy for the nation that will ensure the continuation of U.S. superiority for the coming millennium.


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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin