Labs Up for Grabs

It's hard to oppose competition. But some scientists say that a congressional plan to force the Department of Energy (DOE) to take bids for the job of managing four of its national labs isn't such a great idea.

On 31 July the House of Representatives approved a 2004 DOE spending bill that would put up for grabs the contracts to manage any DOE lab that has been operated by the same institution for more than 50 years. The little-noticed provision would apply to the Lawrence Livermore, Argonne, Ames, and Lawrence Berkeley laboratories.

The proposal is the latest twist in a long-running controversy over how the government should manage DOE's 16 national laboratories. The labs range from sprawling nuclear weapons centers to specialized research accelerators. All are operated for the government by universities or private firms. Some longtime contractors have come under fire for management scandals, which critics say have been exacerbated by the government's practice of renewing contracts without holding a competition.

The biggest target of the proposal is the University of California's (UC's) 51-year-old nonprofit deal to run the $1.2-billion-per-year Livermore weapons lab in California, also the site of several major management controversies. "This provision is really aimed at Livermore; the [critics] want the UC out," says one House aide. But the provision also snags less controversial labs. The University of Chicago, for instance, has won good grades from the government for managing the $500-million-a-year Argonne National Laboratory outside Chicago. So has Iowa State University, which manages the $30-million-per-year Ames National Laboratory on its campus.

"Dictating competitive bidding for its own sake ... is a step in the wrong direction," says Paul Fleury, dean of engineering at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, and a former national laboratory administrator. Whereas the weapons labs may warrant closer scrutiny, DOE should compete science lab contracts "only if [it] has good reason to replace an incumbent," says Fleury. The bidding process alone can cost millions of dollars, he and others note, and an academic lab located on its current manager's campus, such as Ames, is not attractive to an outside party.

Such views may come up during negotiations between the House and Senate on a final version of the spending bill. One possible compromise: Urging DOE to compete its lab contracts but allowing the department to extend deals that it decides are good enough.

Related site
House Science Committee Hearing on DOE contracts