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The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California.

The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California.

Lawrence Berkeley National Lab - Roy Kaltschmidt

New report urges DOE's national laboratories to go local

Think nationally, act regionally. That’s the bumper-sticker version of a new study out today that says the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) 17 national science laboratories need to get more engaged in economic development, innovation, and technology commercialization at the regional level.

To date, the DOE labs have failed “to aggressively and fully seize the opportunity to turn federally funded research into new products and services, particularly at the state and regional level,” concludes the report, available here and here. The trio of authors, from the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program and the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation’s Center for Clean Energy Innovation (CCEI), offers 15 recommendations for improving the labs’ connections to their communities. They include giving lab managers more control over funds for building local economic partnerships, creating off-campus “microlabs” to attract local businesses, and providing small- and medium-sized firms with “vouchers” for research assistance. The report also calls for making an array of current federal technology transfer and commercialization programs more flexible and nimble.

The idea, says co-author Mark Muro of Brookings, is to help a federal laboratory system initially established to fight the Cold War adapt to the global economic and security challenges of the 21st century. “The competitiveness and innovation game is changing very quickly, and [the United States] needs to be seeking the greatest return on our investments,” he says. “The point is not to completely rethink what the labs are, but update them.”

There’s nothing wrong with the labs’ original missions to develop new energy technologies, answer major scientific questions, or provide researchers with access to expensive facilities such as particle accelerators, says co-author Matthew Stepp of CCEI. But, he adds, “There is no contradiction between ramping up regional engagement and acting in the national interest. … Often, the national mission can be best served by going through the regions.”

The authors hope to stimulate a national discussion about the performance of all the DOE labs that don’t focus on nuclear weapons. Outside groups have issued several reports critical of lab operations, management, and commercialization programs, and the DOE’s inspector general has suggested a radical remaking of the system. Last year, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz announced he wanted to take a closer look at laboratory management and created two internal panels to advise him on possible changes. Congress has created an independent Commission to Review the Effectiveness of the National Energy Laboratories, which will hold its second meeting on 15 September in Alexandria, Virginia.

Those activities should help the report gain some traction among policymakers, say Muro and Stepp. “A lot of thoughtful people are looking at these issues,” Muro says, and “there is ferment within the labs; some lab leaders would like to engage with their local economies and are seeking tools to do that.”

“The mission of the labs is up for discussion, and these ideas should be on the table,” Stepp tells ScienceInsider.  But he’s prepared to be patient. DOE’s labs are “dinosaur-age institutions in many ways,” he says, “and we are not expecting them to change overnight.”