The birth of national research laboratories in the US is marked by the founding of the Bureau of Standards at the turn of the 20th century. As the country was about to enter World War I, the government organized the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, which actually performed R&D to help the fledgling field of aviation get airborne, and the Naval Consulting Board that quickly fostered the Naval Research Laboratory. Both NACA and NRL were formed to advance the country's defenses. While government labs may have seemed strange in a nation dedicated to free enterprise, the concept of research laboratories was familiar to corporate America. By World War I, research labs were spewing forth new products at General Electric, Westinghouse Electric, DuPont, Eastman Kodak, Corning Glass Works and American Telephone and Telegraph. It was World War II that provided the impetus for a proliferation of government laboratories. One of the earliest was the Radiation Laboratory at MIT, where the British invention of microwaveradar was transformed from an engineering curiosity to a practical technology. The Advisory Committee on Uranium, initiated at the urging of prominent physicists in 1939, after nuclear fission was discovered in Germany, led the Army to organize the Manhattan Project in 1943 to produce atomic bombs. The Manhattan Project itself spawned a remarkable network of laboratories to advance nuclear weapons and perform fundamental research: Los Alamos, Oak Ridge, Argonne, Lawrence Radiation Laboratory, Ames, Bettis and Brookhaven. Soon after the war, these labs were designated by Congress as government‐owned and contractor‐operated, placed under the aegis of the civilian‐dominated Atomic Energy Commission and managed by either major universities or industrial firms. Aware of the advantages of using high technology in modern warfare, the armed services had initiated their own laboratories to further their military missions. Some were organized before and during the war, others after the postwar creation of the Defense Department. Six months after the Soviet Union launched its first Sputnik in 1957, NACA was transformed into NASA, which produced another group of national laboratories.
America's government laboratories are a reservoir of scientific and technological capabilities. They contribute to national defense, scientific discoveries, space exploration, better agriculture and improved health care. Over the past decade. Congress has directed the labs to pass along their research ideas and technological knowhow to commercial companies in an effort to enhance the country's competitiveness in global markets. In an attempt to understand how the national labs can best achieve their new mission while retaining their old strengths, PHYSICS TODAY editors brought together six prominent members of the nation's R&D enterprise to discuss the issues.