National labs ‘choked’ by bureaucracy — Moniz advisers 

Source: Katherine Ling, E&E reporter • Posted: Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Administrative requirements and bureaucracy are “choking” the Energy Department’s national laboratories, according to a draft report from the secretary of Energy’s advisory team.

The structure for DOE oversight of the 17 national laboratories is unclear and involves six different offices, resulting in duplicative authorizations and reporting requirements, among other bureaucratic quagmires. The setup is wasting resources, building distrust and causing inefficiency at the labs, according to the draft report.

The advisory group recommends that the newly created National Laboratory Policy Council take the lead to simplify this web of authority to help improve technology transfer to the private sector, management and operating contracting methods DOE uses to run the laboratory system, and national lab-driven research and development.

The National Laboratory Policy Council is headed by the secretary of Energy and is made up of a leader from DOE’s relevant research programs and four national laboratory directors.

The draft report also recommends boosting the mission of the Laboratory Board of Operations beyond infrastructure and operations, to help coordinate best practices, facilitate communication between labs and DOE headquarters, and work on uniform policies throughout the labs on human resources, technology transfer and R&D. The expanded board would guide “best practices,” including those to improve performance, efficiency and morale across the lab system, but not set specific technical directions or lab R&D priorities, the report says.

The task force draft report recommendations will be discussed at a meeting of the full 19-member Secretary of Energy Advisory Board (SEAB) scheduled for next week at DOE headquarters.

A second task force report due in December will tackle the national labs’ work for other programs, cooperation between facilities, and morale and workforce development.

The task force is made up of 16 experts from academia, government and the private sector, including former DOE Undersecretary of Science Steven Koonin, now at New York University; Arun Majumdar of Stanford University, the former head of the Advanced Research Projects-Agency (ARPA-E); and John Deutch of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, formerly DOE undersecretary and chairman of the task force.

The SEAB review is part of a greater movement both on and off Capitol Hill to assess the future of the national labs, which have an annual budget of about $13.5 billion.

Critics have urged DOE to modernize its oversight to facilitate private-public collaboration with the labs and foster an environment supportive of innovation at the labs to encourage younger scientists to work there and improve U.S. economic competitiveness.

To help tackle these challenges, Moniz created an undersecretary of energy and science to better coordinate DOE’s lab activities, established the National Laboratory Policy Council and revived the Laboratory Operations Board. He has also created a new Office of Technology Transitions that will focus on promoting best practices and system-side practices to bring more research into the market (Greenwire, March 17).

The SEAB draft report adds to several other ongoing or just-completed reports on the modernization of the national lab system, including a National Research Council report released two months ago that looked at issues at the National Nuclear Security Administration’s labs (E&ENews PM, Jan. 23).