Viewpoint by Charles V. Shank
Excerpted from Physics Today, July, 1994

LBL Research Review August 1994

DESPITE THEIR LEGACY OF RESEARCH ACHIEVEMENT, our national energy laboratories are at the threshold of a sea change, brought on by the end of the Cold War and by domestic economic pressures. New attention is being paid to America's ability to compete economically in the world marketplace, and questions are naturally being raised about how the nation invests its research dollars. As industrial labs, including those of IBM, AT&T, Exxon, and General Electric, continue to be eliminated, downsized, or refocused to meet corporate financial objectives, the national laboratories are being asked to work in partnership with the private sector to improve the competitiveness of American industry. The challenge is no less than to reverse what some see as an erosion of the U.S. technology base by utilizing the investment made over the past decades in the national laboratories.

For more than fifty years, the energy laboratories have tackled problems vital to the nation's military and energy security. In so doing, they have compiled a record of extraordinary accomplishment. Eighteen Nobel laureates have performed their prize-winning research as staff members at these laboratories, and at least a dozen more have used the labs' facilities in their award-winning work. While the laboratories' early history was dominated by weapons research, and by a mission to pursue research that evolved directly from their earliest explorations of nuclear energy, today, their mandate has grown to include work directed toward solving the nation's most significant problems related to the production of all forms of energy, as well as their associated health and environmental consequences.

In a time of federal budgetary constraint and widespread worry about U.S. competitiveness, new expectations are being raised that the national laboratories create value for the economy. The U.S. competitive advantage is a logical beneficiary of energy laboratory research. The billions of dollars invested in the national laboratories have produced a host of unique tools for research, as well as an impressive infrastructure of engineering, systems management, and computational horsepower, and a cadre of scientists skilled in mission-directed research. Nothing could be more natural than leveraging this investment to attack problems of importance to U.S. industry.

Cooperating with industry is not new to the national laboratories. Over the years, many national laboratories have worked closely with industry on projects that hold commercial promise but whose central purpose was to support the labs' research mandate. For example, much of the nation's commercially available state-of-the-art computing capability is a result of the laboratories and industry working together to develop high-performance computing and networking systems--systems demanded by the labs' defense and energy missions.

Here at LBL we have played a developmental role in such commercially successful products as low-emissivity windows, high-frequency fluorescent lamp ballasts, and, less directly, compact fluorescent lamps. The development and market success of these technologies were results of a long-term partnership between Berkeley researchers and key industries, beginning in the late 1970s. Each of these energy-efficient technologies is expected in time to saturate its respective market, at which point they are expected to account for a total of $4.6 billion in added annual revenues to U.S. industry, in addition to saving about $20 billion each year in utility bills--a dramatic payoff on a $6 million federal investment in research directly related to the laboratory's energy mission.

I believe that our national laboratories are poised to make an important contribution to our nation's competitiveness. Partnerships with industry clearly address a national need. In the process, we must recognize that the labs will be of value to industry only if we keep sight of the essential enduring mission of the energy laboratories: to pursue fundamental and applied research aimed at ensuring U.S. energy security and at understanding the environmental ramifications of energy development and use. Accordingly, industrial partnerships should not account for more than 15-20 percent of the laboratories' budgets, thus ensuring their ability to deliver on their energy mission and to be of continuing value to industry. With their primary mission still clearly at the fore, the laboratories are on their way to creating more value for the country than at any time in their history.

Dr. Charles V. Shank is the director of the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory.

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