On February 1, the Task Force on Alternative Futures for the
Department of Energy National Laboratories issued its much
anticipated report. Chaired by Robert Galvin, the 23-member task
force issued a 78-page report concluding ten months of intensive
study. The report was presented to DOE Secretary Hazel O'Leary at
a meeting of the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board.
The Task Force expressed its conclusion about the missions of the
laboratories early in the report: "One general observation of the
Task Force is that the national laboratories, and the Department,
appear to believe that they have the potential to serve an
extraordinarily broad role in scientific investigation and
technical research for the nation. The Task Force does not support
this view. Rather, we see the laboratories as having clear areas
of expertise, yet limited to their traditional mission areas of
national security, energy, and environmental science and
technology, as well as in the fields of fundamental science which
underpin these missions and in basic science associated with high
energy, nuclear, and condensed matter physics." The report
continues, "the urgent requirement for these laboratories is to
provide more disciplined focus on the new research needs within the
traditional set of mission areas...." These missions are: national
security, energy, environmental science and technology, fundamental
science, and industrial technologies.
A major conclusion of the report, discussed below, concerns the
governance of the laboratories. Other findings revolved around
issues that have long been raised about the labs. For example,
while acknowledging industrial technologies as a mission, the
report states, "Development of technologies for which private
sector companies are the major beneficiary is not an appropriate
mission for the national laboratories." It later continues,
"Industrial competitiveness, broadly defined, has no place as a
stand-alone mission of the laboratories, but rather should be
regarded, and treated, as a derivative of their primary missions.
The idea that the laboratories are, or could become, cornucopias of
relevant technology for a broad range of industries is a myth."
Concerning the laboratories' science-engineering role, the report
concludes, "The Task Force is concerned about what appears to have
been a significant decline in DOE funding for fundamental research
over the past three years, with the prospect of still deeper cuts
to follow." The report continues, "The Nation presently faces the
challenge of finding an institutional substitute for the corporate
central research laboratories. However, we do not think that the
national laboratories provide a good institutional basis for a
general solution." Early in the report, the Task Force states,
"The Department should sustain and strengthen its support of
fundamental science." While the Task Force generally reached
consensus positions, it was "divided concerning a recommendation
for the level of support needed in the area of fusion energy."
The report did not recommend the closure of a specific laboratory,
instead stating that comparative validation and independence from
DOE would "force the elimination of redundancies and less than
world-class capabilities." Finding that the "laboratories do not
have sufficient focus or clarity of purpose," the Task Force
recommends the creation of "Centers of Excellence" to
institutionalize differentiation and specialization.
Describing a "counterproductive federal system of operation"
placing the laboratories' quality and effectiveness in "serious
jeopardy," the Task Force concluded, "Government ownership and
operation of these laboratories does not work well." Governmental
domination of the laboratories continues to grow, significantly
driven by congressional policy. As a remedy, the report recommends
a "private sector style `corporatized' laboratory organization
system." Not-for-profit corporation(s) would be governed by a
Board of Trustees appointed by the president. DOE would sponsor
this work, with Congress determining broad mission funding levels.
"An improvement of between 20 and 50 percent in the effectiveness
of the laboratories themselves, on top of significant staff and
overhead economies in the Department" is predicted.
The report notes that the Task Force was split over whether nuclear
weapons laboratories would be appropriate candidates for this
governance. The report cautions that this new mechanism should not
be used as a pretext to dismantle or disband the system, or to
change the laboratories' focus from long-term, fundamental research
to short-term "job shop" responsibilities. The Task Force "sees no
compelling reason for DOD to manage the national security
activities at the weapons laboratories."
Secretary Hazel O'Leary agreed with most of the conclusions of the
Task Force. Her largest area of disagreement concerned findings
critical of the Environmental Management Program. Most of advisory
board members expressed general agreement with the report, the
major exception being former Congressman Butler Derrick. Regarding
the recommendation to change the governance of the laboratories, he
said, "This is not going to happen.... You're dreaming if you
think Congress is going to give you $6 billion, cut you loose and
say, `Do what you want.'"
A period of public comment on this report ends on February 15. A
full analysis and implementation plan will be sent to the National
Science and Technology Council by March 7. That material will be
included in a report to the president on DOE, Department of
Defense, and NASA laboratories due on April 15.
To obtain a copy of this report, access the "What's New" section of
the Department of Energy's HomePage at http://www.doe.gov DOE can
also mail you a copy; please call 202-586-7092, fax to
202-586-6279, or send an e-mail message to sean.mcdonald [at] hq.doe.gov