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House Science Panel Gives Big Hug to Reform of DOE Labs


By David Malakoff
Science Magazine
The spacious hearing room of the U.S. House of Representative's Committee on Science, Space, and Technology has witnessed some pretty feisty ideological arguments. But not today. The bipartisan group of lawmakers who showed up for a hearing on a recent report from an unusual trio of Washington think tanks had nothing but praise for their ideas on how to improve operations at the Department of Energy's (DOE's) sprawling network of 17 national laboratories. So did two DOE lab directors who testified.
"[O]ne does not have to turn a single page to be intrigued by this report," which was co-authored by analysts from the conservative Heritage Foundation, the liberal Center for American Progress, and the centrist Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), said Representative Cynthia Lummis (R-WY), chair of the science panel's Energy Subcommittee. It "is a pleasant reminder that even in the current polarized environment, opportunities for bipartisan policy improvements exist."
Released last month, the 70-page report makes a host of recommendations for streamlining management of the laboratories, reducing bureaucratic red tape, and making it easier for them to work more closely with industry to commercialize new technologies. As Science reports online today, the study comes as policymakers in Washington are discussing—for the third time in two decades—launching a major effort to reassess and reorganize the laboratories, which spend some $12 billion annually on research. Late last month, for instance, a Senate appropriations panel called for creating a new national commission to examine lab operations and look for efficiencies.
That idea didn't come up at the hourlong House hearing today, but the two Republicans and three Democrats who participated appeared to be in broad agreement that some lab practices need a rethink. For instance, all five—representatives Lummis, Randy Hultgren (R-IL), Eric Swalwell (D-CA), Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), and Dan Lipinski (D-IL)—raised questions about how the government could make it easier for the labs to work with companies on new products and services.
One answer, said two of the report's co-authors—ITIF's Matthew Stepp and Heritage's Jack Spencer—is to make consideration of commercialization efforts a bigger factor in how the government evaluates the contractors that run the labs for the government. Another is to strip away layers of red tape surrounding lab-industry agreements. One laboratory, for example, "catalogued 110 requirements that the lab and researchers must meet to facilitate technology transfer," Spencer noted in his written testimony.
The two lab directors who testified—Thom Mason of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee and Dan Arvizu of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado—generally agreed with both of those ideas. They also noted that a DOE pilot effort, called the Agreements for Commercializing Technology (ACT), has begun to address some of those issues. "We expect this new mechanism to provide a more flexible framework for negotiation" of tech transfer agreements, Mason stated in written testimony.
Hultgren sounded one note of caution about the expected payoff from commercialization, however. DOE labs that focus on highly specialized basic science projects, such as the particle physics-focused Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in his district, may not "be positioned to provide technology transfer," he said, so they should have different evaluation criteria.
Both Arvizu and Mason also welcomed some other reform suggestions, such as putting one DOE undersecretary in charge of overseeing the 13 labs that are not focused primarily on nuclear weapons, waste, or security work. Two DOE undersecretaries now share that responsibility, but Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz has signaled that he is seriously considering revising that arrangement.
Lawmakers didn't hint at whether they might propose any legislation to implement the suggested reforms. But Lummis said that they are looking forward to hearing Moniz's "forthcoming reform ideas."

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