Dept. of Energy: The National Labs

Last week, the Energy Subcommittee got to hear about a bipartisan plan in how the DOE’s National Labs should be restructured. It was truly a bipartisan report since the two main groups that authored it were the Center for American Progress and the Heritage Foundation. These groups are polar opposites on the political spectrum, so it was very refreshing to see them come together to agree on a certain set of principles and guidelines for the National Labs to follow. In brief, the report detailed how to restructure the labs to reduce the amount of bureaucracy and red tape they have to go through for collaborating and working with the private sector. The report made a lot of sense as far as reducing some of the redundant oversights involved due to honest attempts to make sure the labs were not the target of scandals by making egregious mistakes.

The area I would like to mention though is how these labs are actually managed. Although the Federal government owns the labs, their operated based on contracts. This model is called government-owned, contractor-operated (GOCO) and it allows for the expense of the lab to be deferred to local entities. This works by a private entity or organization entering into a Management and Operation (M&O) contract with DOE. Granted, most of these organizations are universities that have the scientific knowhow and personnel to run these labs, and they are the ones to shoulder the costs.

I found this interesting, as I had never given much thought into how these labs operated. Much of the report dealt with giving the contractors more leeway in how they set up partnerships with small and large businesses for purposes of advancing technology beyond the realm of research and into the marketplace. Of course, long-term strategic plans were included allowing for accountability, but the path to end goal was not as important as the goal itself. It lifted the DOE’s constant oversight and approval allowing contractor/industry partnerships to be more flexible in reaching those targets.

As a whole, I thought both sides had a great approach to streamline science-to-market pipeline in this well thought out the report. I hope that with the new DOE Secretary, Ernest Moniz, this plan will be used as an initial blueprint for his plans on restructuring the labs and different DOE departments.

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