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Commission on national labs’ future hopes that its work won’t be repeated

The latest review panel laments that its predecessors' recommendations have not been followed.

Of the more than 50 commissions, panels, and studies that have been conducted on the national laboratories, none have effected the changes necessary to address the persistent problems documented between the labs and the Department of Energy, says the latest panel to issue its recommendations on the subject. The Commission to Review the Effectiveness of the National Laboratories urges Congress and the Obama administration establish a “standing review board” to track the implementation of the commission’s recommendations.

In testimony to a Senate Appropriations subcommittee, which created the Commission to Review the Effectiveness of the National Laboratories, the panel’s co-chairs T. J. Glauthier and Jared Cohon, urged that the laboratory-directed R&D (LDRD) program, which reserves a small percentage of each lab’s budget for discretionary research, be restored to its historical level of 6%. The LDRD cap has fluctuated in recent years, and although it stands at 6% currently, that rate includes overhead charges that the program previously didn’t have to bear. The commission says the cap would have to rise to 10% to provide the 6% rate unburdened by overhead.

“The ability to adapt, retool, invest in staff and capabilities, and enter new research areas is crucial to laboratory performance and maintenance of high quality staff and research,” the commission wrote in its report. The three weapons labs, Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore and Sandia, in particular “depend very much on basic science, and it’s LDRD funding that allows them to explore new areas,” Cohon told the subcommittee.

In addition, LDRD at the weapons labs supports more than half of their postdocs.

“We don’t teach weapons science in universities,” Cohon noted. “There are only three places where weapons science is taught.”

According to the commission, the findings of dozens of reports written on the labs “shows a strikingly consistent pattern of criticism with a repeating set of recommendations for improvement.” But, it noted, “none of these reports have led to the comprehensive change necessary to address the well-documented, persistent challenges confronting the Department [of Energy] or its laboratories.” Of the commission’s 36 recommendations, many address mending the frayed relationship between DOE and its labs.

Like numerous panels that preceded it, the commission lamented that DOE’s relationship with many of the labs has devolved in recent years from one of trust and focus on results to one based on compliance with specific rules and regulations. “An exclusively compliance-oriented relationship breeds a bad kind of behavior. Trust, on the other hand, breeds the kind of behavior we want,” Cohon said. DOE should both provide the labs with more flexibility and hold them accountable for performance, Glauthier added.

“The partners should jointly establish annual operating plans that delegate clearly defined authority to the laboratories in exchange for transparency and successful mission performance,” the commission’s report states. “Laboratories that earn DOE’s trust should enjoy greater freedom to operate, while others will continue to experience heightened DOE oversight and control.”

Both sides share responsibility for the deterioration in relations, Glauthier said. The labs operate, to some degree, in secrecy, striving to establish their positions and sometimes lobbying Congress for support without informing DOE. This elicits new requirements from DOE, which wants to know what labs are doing, and the cycle reinforces itself, he said. However, “We think this secretary and this set of directors are making good progress in restoring and rebuilding trust and confidence,” he added.

“Things have gone wrong and they will go wrong, and I think it’s important to respond appropriately when they do,” Cohon said. “But there’s been a tendency when something goes wrong in one place to apply the solution across all 17 of the labs. And sometimes the solution is pretty strict and probably an overreaction.”

One such example is the difficulties facing lab staff who want to attend scientific conferences. Tightened controls on travel were instituted across the government as a result of a 2012 scandal at another federal agency. In the commission’s visits to all 17 labs, restrictions on travel was “issue one,” Cohon said. “It’s a very serious constraint on [scientists’] ability to be effective.”

The Office of Science, which administers most of the multipurpose labs, has a good record on building large facilities, the report said, but the National Nuclear Security Administration, which administers the weapons labs, has had problems with cost overruns and schedule slippages. “The department has a lot of rules on the books for the way you manage these projects that are not being followed, or followed in form but not in substance,” Glauthier said. Projects should have all the design and engineering work done before construction begins, he noted.

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