In his final public speech in D.C., Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz rolled out the first annual report on the state of the Department of Energy national laboratories alongside an enhanced scientific integrity policy that now applies to all DOE employees, including those at the labs.
Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz used his last public speech in D.C. to discuss a subject he has devoted much attention to during his four years as secretary: the Department of Energy’s 17 national laboratories. Speaking on Jan. 11 at the National Press Club, Moniz described the motivations behind a new report on the state of the national labs as well as an enhanced scientific integrity policy that now applies to all DOE personnel, including the non-federal employees at the labs.
Report summarizes lab structure, activities, and ongoing management reforms
The document is the first of what the current DOE leadership intends to be an annual snapshot of the lab system. Weighing in at just over 200 pages, the inaugural edition is meant to provide a comprehensive overview of the labs, whereas subsequent versions are envisioned as being much shorter. Moniz explained that the inspiration for this effort had come from the Commission to Review the Effectiveness of the National Energy Laboratories (CRENEL), which urged DOE to do more to explain the value of the labs to Congress and taxpayers. (See FYI 2016 #23 for a summary of DOE’s formal response to CRENEL’s final report.)
In addition to describing the labs’ structure and activities, the state of the labs report summarizes reforms undertaken in response to recommendations made by various recent study panels including CRENEL, the Congressional Advisory Panel on the Governance of the Nuclear Security Enterprise, and the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board (SEAB) Task Force on the DOE National Labs. Moniz indicated his hope that the initial report will be used as a baseline by incoming administration when it assesses the labs.
Moniz makes case for continued investment in the national lab system
The central theme of Moniz’s speech was that the national labs are integral to executing the department’s broad range of missions, which span basic and applied R&D, energy technology development, stewardship of the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile, nuclear nonproliferation, and nuclear waste cleanup:
All of those missions are underpinned by science and technology. Indeed, I would say that the distinguishing characteristic of the Department of Energy among Cabinet agencies is the almost total reliance on science and technology and its application for many of the country’s critical national missions. Our core asset for pursuing that science and technology, and its application, is the national laboratory system.
Moniz also observed that the national labs have unique capabilities relative to universities and industrial labs, citing their ability to assemble large, multidisciplinary teams that tackle problems over many years and handle missions not appropriately conducted by other institutions, such as nuclear weapons stewardship. He also noted that the labs are uniquely suited to operate large user facilities and serve as an “on call” resource for responding to disasters, such as the Fukushima meltdown, and providing technical input to inform national decisions, such as the nuclear agreement with Iran.
Moniz proceeded to list off various measures of the labs’ output, ranging from their role in developing energy technologies that underpin entire industries to quantitative metrics of their scientific productivity. He highlighted the high number of peer-reviewed publications (10,000+ each year), Nobel Prize winners (115 to date), and R&D 100 award winners supported by the labs, as well as DOE’s generation of the most patents per R&D dollar among the applied agencies.
“We are an S&T organization fundamentally, and the results are there in terms of impact across the board,” he concluded.
Moniz touts expanded scientific integrity policy
Moniz explained that the prior policy, issued in 2012, was inadequate because it only applied to DOE’s federal workforce. Since most lab employees are technically not federal employees, until now they were subject to a patchwork of integrity policies set by the institutions which operate the labs on behalf of DOE.
Notably, Moniz made no link between the timing of the release and recent anxieties about how the incoming administration will treat scientists. He stressed that deficiencies of the old policy were pointed out “years ago,” and that the department had been working on developing the new policy for over a year.
In addition to the large increase in number of employees covered, the new policy appears to strengthen employees’ ability to express their views and ensure their research is appropriately represented. Among its provisions, the policy indicates that employees are “free to share their personal views and opinions on scientific or technical related policy matters, provided they do not attribute these views to the U.S. Government.” It also stipulates that employees have the right to “review, prior to publication or release, any institutional public communication (e.g., DOE or laboratory report, press release) that substantially relies on their research or is released under their name” and to correct scientific or technical errors in these documents.
Moniz stressed that the new policy will be important to ensuring the long-term vitality of the labs, remarking, “It’s a part of establishing the environment that allows scientists to do their work, to stay with us, and to recruit new people, young people—they have to know they’re going into a vibrant, open scientific environment.”
Full implementation of the policy will require action by his successor, as it directs the Secretary of Energy to appoint a Scientific Integrity Official within the Office of the Deputy Secretary of Energy. The nomination hearing for former Texas Governor Rick Perry is currently scheduled to occur on Jan. 19.
CRENEL co-chairs assess lab management reforms
After touting the labs’ various strengths and accomplishments, Moniz acknowledged that more needs to be done to improve the relationship between DOE and the labs. He noted that recent reviews of the lab system have “emphasized quite properly that the trust between the department and the national laboratories had somewhat weakened over time” and that he has focused on “moving from a transactional approach that had crept in over the years to one that went back to a stronger focus on mission as the focus of management.”
Indeed, CRENEL identified “rebuilding trust” between DOE and the labs as perhaps its most important overarching recommendation. The CRENEL co-chairs, TJ Glauthier and Jared Cohon, recently conducted a review of DOE’s actions over the year since the commission released its final report. In letters to Moniz dated November 2016 (available here and here, respectively), they note that they are pleased with the progress made to date overall. They particularly applaud DOE’s actions to clarify roles and responsibilities, manage the labs as a “system,” initiate crosscutting activities, implement the Office of Science’s strategic planning process at more labs, and increase transparency of the labs’ indirect costs.
However, they note that it is too early to tell if the various high-level reforms will make lasting improvements farther down the organizational hierarchy. Both co-chairs also insist that a standing commission should be established to monitor progress on implementation of these reforms. DOE has indicated that it plans to use SEAB for this purpose, but Glauthier cautions in his letter that SEAB cannot be given tasks by Congress and that future secretaries may not utilize SEAB to the same degree as Moniz. They instead recommend considering the National Academies as a host organization for a small standing commission.
Labs report among wave of major DOE document releases
With the change in administration looming, DOE has recently issued a flurry of new regulations and policy documents. Although many of these may be overturned or shelved, they serve as a marker of the outgoing administration’s policy priorities.
A synchronized set of reports came on Jan. 5, when Moniz and President Obama’s other Cabinet secretaries each issued “exit memos” that describe each agency’s recent accomplishments and make recommendations to the incoming administration. Moniz’s memo highlights various “actions needed,” such as doubling federal funding for clean energy R&D, supporting new research commercialization initiatives, implementing recommendations from various SEAB reports, continuing investment in the Stockpile Stewardship Program, and building a case for ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. The next day, DOE released the Quadrennial Energy Review’s second installment, a 487-page tome which assesses means of transforming the nation’s electricity system.
The Office of Nuclear Energy has been particularly active in issuing policy documents. Within the past few weeks, it has released a draft plan for storage of defense-related nuclear waste, a draft assessment of requirements for a new test reactor, a draft process for consent-based siting of consolidated storage and disposal facilities for nuclear waste, and a strategy for the development and deployment of advanced reactors.
Also of note, SEAB sent a letter to Moniz reflecting on the board’s activities during his tenure and drawing attention to areas they believe need continued attention in the coming years. Among the subjects SEAB weighs in on are the ongoing lab management reforms, stressing “in the strongest possible terms” that no more studies are needed on this front, but instead a focus on implementing existing recommendations. The letter concludes, “SEAB thanks you for your outstanding service as Secretary of Energy and closes with the admonition we are sure you share: ‘so much to do, so little time.’”