Scientists at the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) 17 national laboratories carry out cutting-edge research every day. But when it comes to setting policy for the labs, DOE officials and Congress come closer to meeting Einstein’s definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Numerous times over the past few decades, lawmakers or DOE leaders have ordered up major reviews of lab operations in hopes of ending complaints about the sprawling system’s bureaucracy and inefficiency—with little obvious effect. But that doesn’t stop them from trying.
Yesterday, DOE announced the nine members of the latest outside commission to review the effectiveness of the national labs. The study will be led by Jared Cohon, a civil engineer and president emeritus of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and T.J. Glauthier, an energy consultant and former deputy DOE secretary during the Clinton administration.
Reviewing the health and direction of the national labs is practically a cottage industry, and Glauthier admits that his panel’s challenge will be to “find something new to say.” The panelists will need no introduction to the ways of Washington, as the lineup includes such pillars of national science advising as former Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustine, Massachusetts Institute of Technology president emerita Susan Hockfield, and Carnegie Institution for Science President Richard Meserve.
The commission is actually a child of Congress, in particular, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D–CA), who mandated such a study in the 2014 spending bill approved in January. She’s certainly no foe of a system that began during World War II, grew like Topsy during the Cold War, and then settled into what some say is an unwieldy and expensive relic of that era. But the commission’s charge reflects the concerns of many in Congress, namely, whether the labs “are properly aligned with the Department’s strategic priorities; have clear … missions that are not unnecessarily redundant and duplicative; have unique capabilities … to meet current and future energy and national security challenges; [and] are appropriately sized.”
The spending bill calls for a report to DOE by 1 February 2015. But Glauthier says the commission will actually deliver only a “phase 1” document by that time. He says DOE and Congress have agreed to allow the panel to continue into a second phase, which will tackle the more politically sensitive topic of possible consolidation and realignment of the current system. Those issues, as spelled out by Congress, include the possibility of using “other research, development, and technology centers and universities as an alternative to meeting DOE’s energy and national security goals.” The legislation also asks the panel to review the management of so-called laboratory-directed research and development, a pot of money with fewer strings attached that lab directors distribute for in-house projects.
The new commission comes in the wake of moves by Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz to take a closer look at laboratory management. This past July, he announced plans to create two new internal panels to advise him on possible reforms. That announcement became public a day after the science committee of the U.S. House of Representatives held a hearing on lab reform, featuring the authors of several reports critical of lab operations and management. The DOE’s inspector general has also suggested a radical remaking of the system.
Glauthier says the commission has yet to agree on its first meeting, much less the format for its inquiry. “I’m sure we’ll be seeking input from the lab directors,” he says. “But exactly how we’ll proceed is something we still need to discuss.”