A nice report on reforming the Department of Energy National Labs1 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 industry2? 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. . . .

  1. “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
  2. 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 []

Because I style myself as “consultant in technology-based economic development,” I’m often asked my opinion on this or that development in the “tech” world. Sometimes I can answer, but sometimes not, because “tech” is not what I’m primarily about. To me, the word “technology” means the full range of practical arts enabled by advanced scientific knowledge and engineering skill. When I use the word, I’m pretty certain I mean something different from what the general public and the media now mean by “tech.”1

Back in the dot-com boom, the public and the investment community began using the word “technology” as a shortcut for what was really just “information technology,” and “technology” soon shortened further to just “tech.” Actually, in Silicon Valley, “tech” seems to have a broader meaning than here, because there it encompasses not just the big Web successes like eBay, Facebook and Yahoo, but also a broad range of firms that actually manufacture materials, systems, and devices based on a wide array of modern technologies (think Intel, Cisco, or even Tesla Motors). But here in the Big Apple, because our local venture capitalists have rightly perceived that our economy’s comparative advantage lies in those technologies that hold potential to “disrupt” our world-beating advertising, media, financial, and fashion sectors, “tech” has come to mean largely “soft” technology: Web 2.0, social media, and now, above all, mobile apps. In a word, software.

All this raises some points I’ve wanted to make about New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg’s “applied sciences” initiative, which I’ll write up in a subsequent blog post some time before he leaves office, but I before I do, I need to clear some linguistic underbrush. As a long-ago undergraduate historian of science, I have a stake in clarity.2

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  1. Of course: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” []
  2. Oh, and that headline for this post is a kludge/joke: apparently you can’t put HTML character codes like ≠ into WordPress headlines, so I borrowed the “bang-equals” symbol from software coding which requires no special characters. []