WASHINGTON, D.C.—The U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) 17 national laboratories can be a rambunctious and fractious lot, often feuding over funding, prestige, and greater independence from their parent bureaucracy. But earlier this week, in a U.S. Senate committee room here, the labs were on their best behavior, presenting themselves as a well-functioning—if not necessarily happy—family.
The occasion was the first-ever National Lab Day, a brainchild of Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz designed to show off how the labs contribute to U.S. science and security. The main target audience: members of Congress who, to put it bluntly, provide most of the money to run the multibillion-dollar research network. And although it wasn’t mentioned directly, the 16 September Lab Day also occurred as the labs are facing renewed scrutiny over their efficiency and purpose.
The labs “provide essential capabilities for university and industrial researchers” and have made important contributions to America’s economic and military might, Moniz reminded a room packed with science policy heavyweights, including 15 lab directors, National Cancer Institute chief Harold Varmus, former White House science adviser Neal Lane, and lawmakers and staffers who serve on key committees overseeing federal research agencies. “[They] continue to advance science, clean energy, and nuclear security in this country, as they have for decades.”
Two U.S. senators in attendance—Dick Durbin (D–IL), whose state is home to the Fermilab and Argonne labs, and Jim Risch (R–ID), whose state hosts the Idaho National Laboratory—echoed Moniz’s praise. The legislators also announced (here and here) that they were forming a Senate National Laboratory Caucus, which aims to bolster support for the system among their colleagues—and demonstrate the value of the labs even to the dozens of states that don’t have one. (The House of Representatives already has a similar caucus.) Lawmakers sometimes don’t realize, Durbin said, that the labs are “one of the most valuable pieces of the American innovation system.”
That theme was echoed during a brief panel discussion that Moniz moderated. Varmus noted how the labs make little-recognized contributions to biomedical research. Norman Augustine, the former CEO of defense giant Lockheed Martin and a member of numerous panels that advise the labs and review their programs, offered a heartfelt and data-sprinkled case for the role they play in conducting long-term research that most companies can’t: “The marketplace won’t allow it.” Two industry representatives, from a maker of vehicle engines and a think tank that serves the electric power industry, discussed how lab collaborations have helped improve vehicle fuel efficiency, reduce pollution, and strengthen the power grid.
The VIPs then circulated around a room packed with more than a dozen display tables and glimmering video screens that documented an array of lab accomplishments, including virtual nuclear reactors that enable utilities to improve performance, imaging technologies that are revamping cancer studies, and simulations of supercomputer capabilities. There was even a giant jar of mostly black jellybeans, demonstrating how lab researchers have helped study the invisible dark matter and dark energy that make up most of the universe.
Notably absent from the displays, however, were eye-catching signs emphasizing the names of the labs; instead, the institutional identities were more demurely displayed. The message, one lab staffer privately remarked, was “we are family.” (All that was missing was a recording of the 1979 Sister Sledge pop hit, famously used as a theme song that year by the Major League Baseball champion Pittsburgh Pirates.)
Then there was the invisible elephant in the room. Over the past few years, the perennial issue of how to make the lab system work better has been revived, providing fodder for Washington think tanks, lawmakers, and others. Common themes include concerns about suffocating bureaucracy, unnecessary duplication of effort, management problems that have contributed to massive cost overruns in some projects, and a perceived failure to maximize commercialization of lab discoveries and technologies. In response, Congress and DOE have established several committees to examine the system and recommend improvements. (Augustine is serving on one of the panels.)
Although Moniz referred only vaguely to those potentially sensitive discussions in his public remarks, he readily acknowledged the problem during an impromptu session afterward with reporters. “We all know that there is criticism,” he said, including that there are too many labs and that their programs overlap. But he’s not seriously considering consolidation, he said, suggesting a closer look would show that lab programs are often “complementary, not overlapping.” The bigger problem, he said, is that “very few people have a picture of what this lab system does. … I guess we have just not done a good enough job of [explaining] it yet.”
Moniz also said he’s “not exactly waiting for all these reports” to make changes in how DOE and the labs operate. Since coming on the job last year, he says he’s tried to give the labs a greater voice in developing projects that unite related efforts across the department and various laboratories under a single umbrella. One example, he said, is an effort included in the 2015 budget request now before Congress to consolidate an array of projects that involve underground science, including efforts to understand subsurface pollutants and the subterranean storage of carbon dioxide. The idea, he emphasized, is to break a pattern of DOE “going to the labs and saying, ‘Here’s a project—do it!’ ” And he promised “there will be more in the next [budget request].”
Moniz also expressed hope that the Senate will soon confirm more than a half-dozen nominees for key DOE posts, including physicist Marc Kastner to the head of the Office of Science. Some of the nominees have been stuck in limbo for more than 8 months. “I am optimistic,” he said, “that this calendar year we will see some action.”