Subcommittee Holds Hearing to Examine Oversight and Science Activities at the Department of Energy

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Publication date: 
19 July 2013

The House Science, Space and Technology Committee’s Subcommittee on Energy held a July 11 hearing to examine Department of Energy (DOE) management and oversight of science and technology activities.  The hearing focused on the efficiency and effectiveness of the DOE national laboratory system and Members of the subcommittee were interested in considering recommendations from witnesses on how the DOE could reform and enhance its support of science and innovation.  At a June 18 hearing, Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz outlined management and performance reforms aimed at improving program effectiveness, oversight and accountability.  The proposed reforms were well received by the subcommittee and Members were eager to hear further details about specific proposed changes at DOE.

Three think tanks, the Information Technology Innovation Foundation, the Heritage Foundation, and the Center for American Progress released a report entitled Turning the Page: Re-imaging the National Labs in the 21st Century Innovation Economy.  Members showed interest in this report, especially due to its bi-partisan nature, and Chairwoman Cynthia Lummis (R-WY) and Ranking Member Eric Swalwell (D-CA) wrote a letter to Secretary Moniz requesting feedback on the suggestions outlined in the report. 

Another recent report on the labs Positioning DOE’s Labs for the Future: A Review of DOE’s Management and Oversight of the National Laboratories was mentioned in the hearing charter.  This report was mandated by the DOE’s FY 2012 appropriations bill and was conducted by the National Academy of Public Administration. 

These labs carry out world-class research on issues of national and global importance, they employ many of our country’s brightest minds in science and engineering, and they continue to inspire, train, and support new generations of American researchers and industry leaders. They also serve as an important path by which new technologies can move to market in ways that benefit its public and private partners alike, and in turn, the U.S. taxpayer,” stated Swalwell.
Four witnesses testified.  Matthew Stepp, Senior Policy Analyst at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation reiterated a point made in the Re-imaging the National Labs report, that while the labs are fundamentally important to the future of American innovation, “the lab system as it is currently managed and organized is falling short of its innovation potential.”  He highlighted three areas for potential reform including bureaucratic micromanagement at the national labs that slows the research process, funding for research is predominantly technology-centric grants rather than focused on “long-term research outcomes,” and a need to strengthen the transfer of technology from the labs to industry.  He advocated for DOE to move to a government owned/contractor operated (GOCO) structure, create a task force to target duplicative oversight, create incentives to partner with industry, allow the labs to conduct non-national security research with non-governmental research organizations and accelerate industry-lab partnerships.  Lastly, Stepp recommended that the Department undergo reforms to promote innovation by combining the Office of Science and the Office of the Undersecretary of Energy into one Office of Science and Technology. 

Of note, in 2001 the American Physical Society (APS) recommended that DOE have a third position of undersecretary charged with overseeing all civilian research including science and energy research.  In 2005, DOE made a request for the creation of this position of undersecretary but for internal reasons, confined the new undersecretary's portfolio to science research.  The proposed realignment of undersecretaries, as recommended by Moniz, is aligned with the recommendations from APS in 2001. 

Jack Spencer, Senior Research Fellow at the Heritage Foundation focused his comments on how the recommendations in the Re-imaging the National Labs report support the vision of the Heritage Foundation.  He spoke about how the recommendations de-centralized authority, re-aligned incentives, and relied on private markets.  He provided an overview of the recommendation to combine the Office of Science with that of the Office of the Undersecretary of Energy, stating that it would combine applied and basic research activities in one office.  He also outlined how the report recommendations would promote improved partnerships with industry. 

Thom Mason, Director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory noted the translational research and development that bridges “basic research and applied technology to solve compelling problems.”  He described the role of industry in this process and the tools used to engage with the private sector including cooperative agreements and new agreements to commercialize technology.  He also mentioned user facility agreements and stated their role in the transfer of research out of the labs.  He advocated for the GOCO model of management for DOE labs and seemed pleased with recommendations by Moniz to integrate science and energy in the management structure of DOE and also supported the report recommendations regarding moving technology to market. 

The fourth witness, Dan Arvizu, Director of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory was pleased with the report recommendations but also cautioned that there is a need to address issues of funding levels, funding priorities and the role of government.  These issues will need to be addressed in order to optimize the DOE labs, stated Arvizu.  He expressed that there is a need for the labs to conduct both basic and applied research to ensure that the transfer of this research to market is successful and was pleased with Moniz’s emphasis on accountability and flexibility. 

Chairwoman Lummis opened her round of questions by asking the witnesses why the DOE lab that works on fossil fuels is government operated rather than contractor operated.  Mason offered a historical reason relating to the time when the Atomic Energy Commission worked on the Manhattan project, he mentioned that transitioning from a government operated system to one that is contractor operated would be complicated.  She also was interested to learn about the number of research agreements at the labs. 

Ranking Member Swalwell was pleased with the Secretary of Energy’s plan to combine the roles of the undersecretaries of energy and highlighted the work taking place at the national labs in his district.  He asked about construction and maintenance at national laboratory facilities, specifically providing appropriate wages for employees in construction at the labs.    He was also interested in hearing about mechanisms to expedite technology transfer at the national labs.  Lastly he asked whether allowing research at the labs to be conducted at a market rate would have unintended consequences for small businesses who are interested in using the labs. 

Members showed support for the report recommendations and were interested to learn about the implementation of these bi-partisan recommendations.  Chairwoman Lummis noted that she was pleased with the suggestions made by Moniz and the subcommittee looks forward to working with him in his new position.