DOE Lab Directors Converge in Washington for Science Lab Day on the Hill

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Publication date: 
20 May 2016

Directors from the Department of Energy’s national labs descended on Capitol Hill last month for a fourth lab day, this time with a focus on science.

Last month, the Department of Energy (DOE) held the fourth in a series of five events on Capitol Hill highlighting the work of DOE’s 17 national laboratories. After the inaugural “Lab Day” in Sep. 2014, each subsequent event was assigned a specific theme: energy infrastructure for the second, national security for the third, and now, science had its turn. The final event in the series will occur this fall and will focus on DOE’s environmental cleanup work.

The lab day exhibition was held in one of the Senate’s cavernous hearing rooms. (Photo credit – Argonne National Laboratory)

The event consisted of an exhibition period followed by remarks from members of Congress and a brief discussion about the labs facilitated by Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz. A photo album of the event is available here.

Four of the exhibits focused on the role of DOE-supported science in advancing understanding of energy, computation, the environment, and the universe, respectively. There also was a fifth exhibit which highlighted the broad user base of the DOE Office of Science’s user facilities. Its centerpiece was a touchscreen map of the U.S. which depicted how institutions across the country make use of these facilities. A web version of this tool is available here.

Who’s who of higher-ups

The turnout of high-level DOE officials at the event was impressive. In addition to Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, the number one, two, and three leaders of the Office of Science were all there: Undersecretary for Science and Energy Lynn Orr, Director of the Office of Science Cherry Murray, and Deputy Director for Science Programs Patricia Dehmer. Last but not least, the directors of all ten of the Office of Science’s labs and a few of the other labs were listed as attending.

There was a good turnout of members of Congress as well, including Sens. Dick Durbin (D-IL), Jim Risch (R-ID), Maria Cantwell (D-WA), and Mark Warner (D-VA) and Reps. Bill Foster (D-IL), Randy Hultgren (R-IL), Dan Newhouse (R-WA), and Chuck Fleischmann (R-TN). Most of those who spoke offered brief remarks praising the labs, although a few also noted specific legislation relevant to the labs.

In particular, Cantwell and Durbin both talked about the Senate’s energy policy bill, which passed earlier that day. Durbin highlighted a successful amendment he sponsored that authorizes funding levels for the Office of Science to increase by five percent per year over a five year period. “There’s a lot to like in that bill,” Moniz later added.

Panel focuses on relationship between labs and private sector

The three participants in the panel discussion were former director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory Paul Alivisatos, University of Michigan Professor Sharon Glotzer, and Johnson Controls Vice President for Engineering & Product Development Mary Ann Wright.

Moniz asked the panelists to reflect on how well the labs are interacting with industry and what more could be done to enhance technology transfer from the labs to the private sector. Wright responded that although she has seen a “step function change in culture” at the labs in their stance toward industry engagement, the labs could still benefit from a greater sense of “urgency” in their dealings with industry.

Alivisatos noted that the attitude toward technology transfer at the labs is changing rapidly. “There’s a very powerful movement across the labs now to make the labs more open to industry,” he said. He then predicted that the labs will become increasingly important incubators for early-stage companies over the next decade.

Panelists also observed that the labs could do more to explain their capabilities and value to the private sector and the public. If more people understood the value of the labs “we [would] not have to be begging for funding,” Wright argued, and suggested that one good way of framing the discussion would be to ask “What would our lives be like without the labs?”

Event part of DOE’s effort to improve interaction with Congress

DOE plans to continue to hold lab days and highlighted these events as one mechanism to better engage with Congress in its response to recommendations of the Commission to Review the Effectiveness of the National Energy Laboratories.

“These events are a valuable tool not only to share the good work of DOE and its laboratories but also to raise the laboratory system’s awareness of broader Congressional interests and to hear feedback from stakeholders,” the report reads.

DOE also announced in the report that it plans to increase its dialogue with Congress about the labs by submitting an annual update to Congress on the “State of the Laboratory System” starting in 2016. This report will detail the labs’ successes, the challenges they face, and DOE’s progress in implementing reforms in response to the commission’s recommendations.

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