Quick take: Joint think tank report on ‘reimagining’ the DOE National Labs

A nice report on reforming the Department of Energy National Labs ((“Turning the Page: Reimagining the National Labs in the 21st Century Innovation Economy,” which joins the long line of such studies documented by Crow and Bozeman in Limited by Design
)) was released recently by an ideologically diverse triumvirate of think tanks: the ITIF, the Center for American Progress, and the Heritage Foundation (report downloadable only from the first two). Reserving the right to disagree with each other on other issues, the authors still do a fine job untangling the way DOE thinks about, funds, and manages the labs, and the report nicely spotlights the pathologies. I have few problems with any of the specific recommendations, but I wish there had been more consideration of some fundamental questions.

Excluding the nuclear energy and weapons labs, which pretty much have to be held under tight federal control, and the fundamental physics labs, where the infrastructure is so expensive no other entity could probably take the risk, do we really need the “multipurpose” national labs as federal assets at all? With so much funding awarded on a quasi-competitive basis from DOE offices other than the one officially “sponsoring” the lab, many are functioning very much like universities, but without freedom of inquiry or entrepreneurial spirit.

As the authors demonstrate, allowing these DOE labs to be managed by private sector entities (nonprofit or for profit) has scarcely improved their flexibility or market-relevance, and so maybe we don’t need them at all. What would the system look like if most research assets were held by universities or nonprofit research institutes in their own names, with full responsibility for acquiring operational funding on a competitive basis from federal agencies and industry ((Single-purpose labs and multipurpose labs with big-physics infrastructure are a harder question, but in the latter case it’s still likely the science programs and labs could be separated from the super-expensive physics assets))? Is there any reason to expect that advances in energy science & technology would be any slower in such a framework? The authors do not speculate. Perhaps it’s an area where they disagree on ideological grounds. . . .


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