Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz is offering a fix to help mend the "broken" relationship between the national labs and the Department of Energy.
In a sweeping document, DOE this week released its formal response to recommendations from a congressionally mandated commission that found distrust between DOE and the labs is inhibiting their performance, despite their many successes and "great value" to the nation. The Commission to Review the Effectiveness of the National Energy Laboratories released its final report last year after 18 months of analysis.
At a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing yesterday that was heavily focused on DOE’s management of nuclear weapons, the commission co-chairs testified that the Office of Science’s labs tend to have less of a "broken" relationship with DOE than most offices. They also repeated a call for a standing body to assess the labs on a regular basis, thereby ending the need for repeated independent commissions making many of the same recommendations over and over. There have been about 50 prior reports on lab reform over the past four decades, they noted.
The commission in the most recent report suggested, for example, that the labs should have more flexibility in managing their own budgets and be allowed to enter into collaborations with private companies without having every business agreement scrutinized by DOE.
In its report to Congress, DOE supported many of the recommendations generally and outlined multiple new ways to address each of them.
"It is evident that we have a shared vision for a national laboratory system focused on innovation, partnership and stewardship that sustains the DOE laboratories as a science and technology powerhouse for the nation," Moniz said of the commission in the document.
Among the new steps, starting this year, DOE intends to compile an annual report to Congress outlining DOE’s "operational successes and continued challenges" in overseeing the laboratories.
It further plans to merge intramural and extramural research at the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) to address the commission’s call for a greater focus on research and development there. DOE will shift decisions on conference attendance back to the labs so they can have more control over their workforce and require DOE’s applied energy offices to use the planning structure of the Office of Science, among other responses to the commission.
Moniz also outlined various pilot projects to test other reform approaches, such as having rotational assignments between the labs and headquarters and giving more flexibility to local authorities in business collaborations with the labs. At a congressional hearing last year, commission co-Chair T.J. Glauthier cited as an example of excessive department oversight California electricians being required to follow DOE rules — rather than local ones — in wiring a building (E&E Daily, Nov. 19, 2015).
The other commission co-chair, Jared Cohon, added yesterday he was "encouraged" by the response from Moniz, who did not testify.
"However, there are areas in which the Secretary does not feel he has all the information he needs and is committing to reviews, workshops, and analyses. We hope those will lead to significant actions, but of course the jury is still out," he said in prepared remarks. "We urge the Congress to support all of these efforts and to hold this secretary and future secretaries accountable."
There were differences between the commission and DOE’s response, which included attached analysis from the department’s National Laboratory Directors Council. For example, the council chair, Terry Michalske, said it is unclear whether there is a "perfect place" for a standing, independent body to assess the labs permanently.
"We would want to guard against such a body serving as the intermediary between the laboratories, DOE and Congress. It is the view of NLDC that open, frequent and strategic communications between DOE, NLDC and Congress are the best means to ensure the greater understanding that will promote lasting change," he wrote.
Moniz has made a push to broaden the labs’ commercial impact. DOE created an Office of Technology Transitions last year, for instance, to try and move more lab research to market.
In a similar vein, the department launched an initiative at the White House yesterday to expand industry access to the labs for testing and producing advanced materials. Funded at $40 million initially, the "Energy Materials Network" will support four national-lab consortia targeting specific materials used for clean energy, such as searching for cheaper base materials for hydrogen fuel cells.
"Through the Energy Materials Network, the National Labs and their partners will develop and apply cutting-edge new materials research tools that will allow us to dramatically accelerate clean energy materials discovery by doing things like using computers to search completely new parts of the periodic table at record speed and performing high-throughput experiments that synthesize and test thousands of materials at a time instead of just one or two," said DOE Assistant Secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy David Danielson.