DOE Responds to Commission Finding Dysfunctional Relationship Between Department and National Labs

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The Department of Energy and two of its advisory bodies largely concur with the findings of the congressionally-chartered Commission to Review the Effectiveness of the National Energy Laboratories. The Commission’s report is the latest in a long series of studies which have discovered a dysfunctional relationship between the department and its national labs.

This week, the Department of Energy published its formal response to the final report of the Commission to Review the Effectiveness of the National Energy Laboratories (hereafter, the “Commission”). DOE’s response also includes separately formulated comments from the National Laboratory Directors’ Council (NLDC) and the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board (SEAB). Each of these organizations applauds the Commission for conducting a thorough review of the national labs, endorses the main thrusts of the report, and explicitly concurs with some of the 36 recommendations.

Although the DOE response highlights recent and planned actions that address the spirit of the recommendations rather than individually agreeing or disagreeing with each, the Commission appears to be pleased with the response. In recent testimony, the Commission co-chairs — T.J. Gauthier and Jared Cohon — expressed that the response is “quite supportive” of their recommendations and provides a very thoughtful and detailed explanation of actions they have taken, and are taking, in every area of our report.”

Congress created the Commission in 2014 and tasked it with reviewing the management and operations of all 17 DOE labs. 16 of the labs are Federally Funded Research and Development Centers (FFRDCs), an organizational model in which a contractor operates a government-owned facility. The co-chairs and seven other Commission members spent over 18 months reviewing the labs, visiting each one in the process.

Notably, the current director of the DOE Office of Science, Cherry Murray, was a member of the Commission and has indicated her interest in implementing best practices and other reforms based at least in part on the Commission’s recommendations. In addition, the co-chairs have presented the Commission’s findings to the Senate Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee, the House Science Committee, and the House Energy and Commerce Committee at hearings last October, last November, and this week, respectively.

Rebuilding trust between DOE and the labs a major focus of report

The Commission report and the DOE response are organized around six themes: recognizing value, rebuilding trust, maintaining alignment and quality, maximizing impact, managing effectiveness and efficiency, and ensuring lasting change. The section on rebuilding trust contains one of the report’s most frequently cited passages in which the Commission describes the erosion of trust between DOE and the labs:

…over the years, the relationship between DOE and the laboratories has eroded. There is fault on both sides. The National Laboratories, for their part, do not fully trust DOE and therefore maintain secrecy about some of their actions…DOE, for its part, does not trust the laboratories to keep them fully informed about technical and financial progress or safety and security issues. As a result, DOE micromanages work at the laboratories with excessive milestones and budget limitations and other requirements about how work should be done.

The Commission recommends that DOE restore the division of responsibility integral to the FFRDC model by focusing more on the “what” (i.e., overall mission areas and programmatic goals) and leaving it up to the labs to decide on the “how” (i.e., means to achieve those missions and goals), with the labs being held appropriately accountable for any mistakes. However, the Commission emphasizes that not all of the labs suffer from this trust problem to the same degree, with the Office of Science labs having a significantly healthier relationship with DOE.

In his foreword within the DOE response, Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz agrees with the Commission’s overarching finding that “oversight by DOE has grown increasingly transactional rather than strategically mission-driven” and notes that the Commission report “appropriately focuses on the importance of the FFRDC model.” After listing a set of actions he has already taken to help “reset” this relationship, Moniz defines (on page iv) a new list of core objectives for lab management cross-referenced with the related Commission recommendations.

Is the national lab system too big, too small, or just right?

Despite the broadly positive reception of the Commission report, there are a few areas in which the responses disagree with the Commission’s approach or recommendations. In particular, the SEAB highlights a subject on which they felt the Commission “could have been a bit more assertive,” implying that the Commission avoided directly addressing an issue implicit in the Congressional tasking:

The Congressional charge to the Commission implicitly calls for a judgment about whether the size of the DOE national laboratory network is too big, too small, or just right...The Commission does not directly address this central question but their implicit answer is that the DOE national labs are doing their job, their effectiveness and efficiency is impaired by over regulation, and the amount of public resources is ‘just right’ although at several points there is a hint that more resources would be welcome. This central conclusion would be more convincing if the Commission had examined a range of different organizational arrangements, quite different from the current structure, and compared the pros and cons of each.

Nevertheless, the Commission report does make some recommendations which at least implicitly pertain to the overall size of the national lab system. First, they conclude that maintaining two independent nuclear weapons design labs — Los Alamos National Laboratory and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory — is vital to national security.

Second, they conclude that "duplication among the laboratories is not excessive," emphasizing that a certain amount of duplication is healthy, especially during the early stages of inquiry. However, they note that in some cases DOE should be more forceful about intervening at a later stage to decide which of the different lines of inquiry being investigated by separate labs should ultimately be pursued.

No more commissions?

The Commission notes with dismay that over the past four decades approximately 50 panels have conducted similar studies, many of which reached similar conclusions because the recommendations from earlier reports had still not been successfully implemented. To alleviate this chronic chartering of commissions, they implore DOE to establish a standing body tasked with tracking implementation of recommendations and suggest that such a body could be located at the National Academy of Sciences or under the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

In its response, DOE indicates its intention to use the SEAB, a Federal Advisory Committee, for this purpose, noting the NLDC’s desire to “guard against such a body serving as the intermediary between the laboratories, DOE, and Congress.” The Commission co-chairs have expressed some concern over whether the SEAB could serve as a sufficiently independent source of advice.

Nevertheless, Moniz made clear his intent to follow through on actions to improve the relationship between the labs and DOE during his presentation on the Department’s fiscal year 2017 budget request, despite this not being an explicit budgetary issue:

For the last nearly three years, 33 months, we have put a very, very strong emphasis on, frankly, rebuilding more of a strategic partnership in how we work with our laboratories. I just want to emphasize that the 17 national laboratory strong system is really one of the major assets for the American science and technology establishment. It is critical to our mission success, and so I think that we [are], through a variety of organizational approaches — Lab Policy Council, Lab Operations Board, Ideas Summits and the like — really looking to in this year continue that buildup of the strong strategic partnership in which we use the laboratory assets not only to execute our missions, but also to shape the directions in which we go.

The hope of both the Commission and Congress is that the next Secretary of Energy will have a similar zeal for the national labs.

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