Viewpoint: The Future of the DOE Laboratories

Spring, 1993

By John M. Deutch

I think this is an extraordinarily important time for the Department of Energy Laboratories. It is a time for major change. We really have to think afresh about the mission of the laboratories--why do we as a country want them here, what is their future, why are we paying for them, what should we expect from them, and what should they be doing?

In that regard, I divide the laboratories into three separate categories: the weapons laboratories--Livermore, Los Alamos, and Sandia; the energy and environment laboratories--Oak Ridge, Argonne, and Battelle; and the science and technology laboratories--Brookhaven and LBL as well as the single-purpose laboratories like Fermilab, the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC), and the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) Laboratory.

If a laboratory does not have a central focus, in my judgment it will eventually lose its technical strength and its ability to judge what is good and what is not so good. The technical focus of the laboratory and its mission must of course depend upon how well it has built, nurtured and maintained the core competence of the people on the staff.

The principal role I see for the science and technology laboratories is unapologetically to dedicate themselves to basic research. One should not forget that there is an important federal role in supporting basic research, which is going to provide the engine of change for the long term.

We face an issue about how to maintain that core basic research strength in the Department of Energy's program and more generally throughout the country, and we are far from a consensus about how to do that. The Department of Energy, it seems to me, does not really have a coherent strategy for how much it wants to put into large projects like the SSC, how much it wants to make our contribution to the culture of the world by high-energy physics and nuclear physics, how much to put into materials science, biological sciences, chemical sciences, or space exploration. DOE has a vast array of worthy purposes, but there is no sense of prioritization, and my real concern is that nothing will end up being done well. I think this is a central problem for DOE, and it is important to reverse that trend of having too large a menu.

It seems to me that there are three important points to be made with regard to the strength of the basic research program in DOE: one has to resist as much as possible earmarked projects; one has to encourage open technical competition for available basic research programs--not only competition among the laboratories but competition with the universities and other research performers in the community; and one has to assure that the cost structure does not give any one of the competitors a particular advantage.

Next, I want to talk about the role of the science and technology laboratory in regard to economic competitiveness in the United States. I think there is a right message and a wrong message, and I hear a lot more of the wrong message. The first wrong message is promising that if the labs or universities turn their attention to economic competitiveness, there will be a major economic payoff in the short run. The danger of making that argument is that it sets false expectations about what can be obtained through the efforts of science and technology. I think that there will be a major economic payoff in the long run but not necessarily in the short run.

The second wrong message has to do with relabeling. By that I mean saying, "We have always been doing work that has impacted US industry" and thinking all we have to do is change the rhetoric rather than change any of the way we practice our science and technology or the way we select and carry out our projects. The final wrong message is one of uniformity--which says we are going to treat all the DOE laboratories the same with regard to the contribution that can be made to economic competitiveness.

What is the right message? In my judgment, it is that the science and technology laboratories and universities do have an important contribution to make over the long term, but it must be seen within the framework of the real character of the industrial productivity problem in the United States today. The principal finding of a two-year study undertaken at MIT, and of many other commissions, is that the real problem in the United States is one of having private-sector firms pay attention to producing quality products at acceptable costs that meet the requirements of the international marketplace. Technology is only part of this issue. Other factors are equally important, like the cost of capital--how much does it cost to actually make things in the United States compared to making them in Japan?

The issue is not only the generation of new technology; it is also the adoption of that technology into the existing industrial system that has been a barrier to our improving our performance either relative to our foreign competition or relative what has been true in the past.

Many alternative mechanisms have been proposed as a government action to repair this poor performance by US industry: There are calls for a civilian Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA); there are calls for more government-agency programs like Sematec; there have been calls to develop something called the Civilian Technology Corporation, and there is the proposal that says, "Let's have the national labs make a larger contribution to this problem of improving the performance of the US commercial sector."

Any one of those various mechanisms means that there has to be some aspect of the effort that focuses on manufacturing, whether that's in design, in manufacturing technology, or in process engineering. Secondly, the effort must involve private industry, because the issue here is not technology creation but actually having the technology adopted by private corporations. Thirdly, one would like as much as possible not to have politics decide which projects are funded and what the allocation of funds will be.

What are the implications of these views about industrial productivity for science and technology labs like LBL? In those sets of programs which one is directing towards working with industry, industry must be involved in the outset. That does not mean the normal Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) relationship, where the lab does one piece of a program and industry does another. It means that a problem is posed, and there is a joint technical plan that is designed by both industry and the laboratory and pursued jointly, perhaps even with an exchange of people between industry and the laboratory. I call that a cooperative project with industry.

I think a lab like LBL has an advantage over any university that I know of because it is easier to have science and engineering--those interested in concepts and applications--working closely together.

I want to stress that having an effort like this does not mean abandoning basic research, which I believe always should be the central focus of this laboratory. But it does seem to me that there is a important opportunity here for those who have energy and who have a vision in science and technology, who say we are going to select a few areas of significance and work with industry from the ground floor to plan and execute a common technical program designed to make the technology more useful to the civilian sector of the United States. If one is going to make progress on this important subject it seems to me that it requires a significant fraction of the laboratory's effort; maybe as much as 15 or 20 percent should be dedicated to pursuing one of these joint areas with industry. What the particular subject matter is depends upon the technical competence and the interest of the staff members.

I am extremely optimistic about what is going to happen. There are enormous opportunities for the laboratories provided that they don't lose sight of their central technical mission and provided that they work with industry in a completely collaborative and integrated way right from the beginning of the design of these projects.

There is no doubt in my mind that this laboratory will maintain its great record for years to come.