House and Senate Committees Examine DOE Lab Management

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Publication date: 
4 August 2003

The House Science Committee's Subcommittee on Energy and the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources both held hearings last month on the management structure of the Department of Energy's national laboratories. Witnesses at both hearings agreed that the nature of the relationship between the management of the laboratories and the Department of Energy should be changed. The hearings were held, in part, in response to the Department of Energy announcement to open for competition the management of the Los Alamos National Laboratory and Idaho National Laboratory.

"The contracts we are discussing today are not contracts to operate a cafeteria, to procure a part for a tank, or to arrange cleanup services for a contaminated site. No, these are contracts to undertake the work of basic scientific research, which, by its very nature, is inherently risky. It often involves failure as an element of learning and success, and it presents a much greater challenge when it comes to measuring performance and results," said Chairman Judy Biggert (R-IL) of the House Subcommittee on Energy. Testifying at this hearing were DOE Undersecretary Robert Card, Robin Nazzaro of the General Accounting Office, Yale University Engineering Dean Paul Fleury, and John McTague, now with the University of California.

The subcommittee's hearing charter outlined many congressional concerns. It noted that "Unfortunately, the public portrait of performance of both DOE and its contractors has often been a source of ongoing controversy rather than pride." "A proliferation of rules and regulations" was intended to reduce cost overruns, credit card abuse and security lapses. The hearing charter states, "In response to this increasing regulation, scientists began to complain that overhead costs were eating into their science budgets, and to complain that paperwork, conflicting regulatory mandates, and endless review processes were causing the quality and quantity of the scientific product to decline." This sentiment was echoed by Rep. Vern Ehlers (R-MI) who commented, "Management's role is to establish the research goals and give the scientists the equipment, facilities and personnel they need to reach the goal. My concern is that federal management is more involved now than in the past and scientists spend too much time on paperwork and not enough on lab work."

As can be expected, each of the witnesses brought their own perspective to the strengths and weaknesses of the national laboratories and their management structure. No one questioned the value of the work performed by the laboratories. All agreed that present practices, both in the labs and in Washington, can be improved. Decisions about when the government should open up the management contracts to competition is now a forefront issue, and toward that end Undersecretary Card described how an independent "Blue Ribbon Commission" will be established by the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board to examine the matter. That commission is expected to report, Card said, "by the end of the fiscal year," which is September 30, 2003.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing was the second in the committee's series of hearings on the governance of the DOE laboratories. The first hearing was held on June 24 (see /fyi/2003/085.html .) Chairman Pete Domenici (R-NM) welcomed an "exceptional, powerful panel" of witnesses that included John Gibbons, Victor Reis, William Spencer, and William Schneider. Domenici commented at the outset that the committee hoped to use these hearings to make recommendations to the Bush Administration on better ways to manage the laboratories.

Reis, now with Hicks & Associates, testified that the assessment of Sig Hecker, a witness at the first hearing, "hit the nail on the head: the root cause of the management difficulties (and they are real) is the lack of trust between the Department of Energy and their laboratories. Former OSTP Director Gibbons spoke of the continuing "layering" of bureaucracies since the 1940s. This practice wastes resources, he said, and is a problem that continues to grow. Schneider, current Chairman of the Defense Science Board, discussed the value of having close ties between a lab's management and the government, using M.I.T.'s Lincoln Laboratory as an example of an arrangement that works. This is in contrast, he said, to overwhelming regulations on the universities managing weapons laboratories, resulting in diminished productivity. In his testimony, Spencer, Chairman Emeritus of International SEMATECH, said that the three weapons laboratories "are better managed by private organizations, with private incentives and minimal government oversight. This was the situation three decades ago and a return to something similar to that mode of management is in the best interests of the country."

As did the witnesses at the House Science Committee hearing, and the first Senate hearing, all of the witnesses agreed that the work of the laboratories perform is very important. All of them also agreed that the present governance structure must be reformed. Domenici is scheduled to hold a third hearing on the laboratories after the Senate returns from its recess.