New study says researchers at the Department of Energy’s 17 National Laboratories, such as this materials scientist at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, need more freedom and less red tape.

New study says researchers at the Department of Energy’s 17 National Laboratories, such as this materials scientist at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, need more freedom and less red tape.

Oak Ridge National Laboratory (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Give U.S. national labs freer rein, commission urges skeptical senators

Like a familiar movie, sometimes a predictable congressional hearing can still be enlightening and engaging. That’s one way to view a hearing held Wednesday by a Senate spending panel on how the Department of Energy (DOE) should manage its 17 National Laboratories.

For decades, directors of the national labs have grumbled that DOE micromanagement leaves them little leeway to guide their institutions. So, not surprisingly, a commission requested by Congress to study the labs recommended that DOE give them greater latitude to pursue goals set by the mothership.

For just as long, however, Congress has complained about cost overruns and mishaps at the labs. So, just as predictably, at yesterday’s hearing some senators—including the one who requested the study—expressed skepticism about giving the labs more freedom.

?"DOE should be directing and overseeing its programs at a policy level, specifying 'what' its programs should achieve," T.J. Glauthier, commission co-chair, testified before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, which is responsible for the DOE budget. "The labs, for their part, should be responsible for determining 'how' to carry them out."

However, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D–CA), the subcommittee's ranking member, pointed to huge cost overruns in current projects. "You're asking for less oversight, and that's a problem when you have billions [of dollars] in [cost] estimates that have been underestimated,” said Feinstein, who chaired the subcommittee in 2014 when it requested the report.

employ 55,000 people and have budgets totaling more than $11 billion. Ten of the labs are run by DOE's basic research wing, the Office of Science; they include smaller single-purpose labs such as the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory in New Jersey and larger multipurpose labs such as Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. Three of the labs—Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, and Sandia National Laboratory in Albuquerque, New Mexico—focus mainly on nuclear weapons research and are run by DOE's National Nuclear Security Agency (NNSA). The four others, such as the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado, are run by DOE's applied research programs. All but one of the labs is run for DOE by outside contractors.

Overall, the new report gave the labs an enthusiastic endorsement: "The National Laboratories represent a national asset of inestimable value." The report called for no closing or consolidation of labs. Still, the labs could be more efficient and productive than they currently are, the commission said.

That's because trust between DOE officials and lab leaders has broken down, testified Glauthier, who served as associate director of the White House's Office of Management and Budget from 1993 to 1998 and as deputy secretary at DOE from 1999 to 2001. According to the report: "The National Laboratories, for their part, do not fully trust DOE and therefore maintain secrecy about some of their actions, including contacts with Congress and other agencies; not informing DOE of emerging problems in a timely manner; and taking some actions below the radar to create new programs and compete for turf in new and emerging areas. DOE, for its part, does not trust the laboratories to keep them fully informed about technical and financial progress or safety and security issues. As a result, DOE micromanages work at the laboratories with excessive milestones and budget limitations and other requirements about how work should be done."

The myriad requirements cause contractors and lab managers to focus too much on checking off the boxes, said Jared Cohon, an engineer at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and co-chair of the commission. "The question becomes are you complying with the requirements as opposed to whether you're accomplishing your mission," Cohon said.

The commission makes 36 recommendations, ranging from allowing the labs to spend up to 6% of their budgets on discretionary research—which the commission said is especially important for attracting young researchers to the weapons labs—to allowing third party financing for buildings at the lab sites. However, Senator Dick Durbin (D–IL) summed up the tenor of the report: "More money, more authority, more freedom, those are your first three recommendations."

The call for more autonomy met with caution. Senator James Lankford (R–OK) noted that recently officials at Los Alamos had reported the theft of tools contaminated with radioactive materials and that an investigation had revealed 76 similar thefts this year. "You want to instill trust with people who are doing an excellent job," Lankford said, "but the administration has to actually carry the ball."

Senators also expressed reservations about giving the labs more leeway because of recent cost overruns in three big projects run by NNSA. For example, NNSA has been trying to build a Uranium Processing Facility at a site known as Y-12 in Oak Ridge that would remanufacture parts for nuclear weapons. But its cost has ballooned from $1 billion to $6.5 billion. To make that estimate stick, the Senate subcommittee is now meeting with project officials every 6 months, said Senator Lamar Alexander (R–TN), who chairs the subcommittee.

That oversight is appropriate in such cases, Glauthier said. But he noted that DOE might avoid such problems if it more strictly enforced existing rules. "The department has a lot of rules on the book that aren't being followed or are being followed in form and not in substance," he said.

The big question is whether the report will change anything. The commission itself notes that in the past 4 decades, there have been more than 50 similar studies. "Can this marriage be saved?" Durbin asked. "If you go to counseling so often with same basic conclusions, then maybe it should raise some basic questions." To cut down the number of studies, the commission suggested a standing committee report periodically to Congress on the labs. That way, if DOE and lab leaders remain on the rocks, at least they'll keep seeing the same marriage counselors.