Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chair Joe Manchin (D-WV) is pressing for the technology competitiveness legislation that Congress is currently developing to incorporate innovation capabilities offered by the Department of Energy and its national labs.
At a hearing last week, Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chair Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Ranking Member John Barrasso (R-WY) fired a bipartisan broadside at the fast-moving Endless Frontier Act. They complained the legislation narrowly focuses on expanding the National Science Foundation to achieve its aim of promoting U.S. technology development while ignoring related capabilities under the Department of Energy’s umbrella.
Manchin said in his opening statement, “I would argue that efforts to strengthen our R&D foundation and technology development ought to start with the Department of Energy and the national labs,” repeating the line for emphasis. He urged lawmakers to “stand strong” in support of DOE’s role “as this conversation around domestic R&D and global competitiveness grows.”
To make their case, Manchin and Barrasso solicited testimony from Los Alamos National Lab Director Thom Mason, former DOE Under Secretary for Science Paul Dabbar, and innovation policy experts Sarah Ladislaw and Lara Pierpoint, respectively representing RMI and Actuate, nonprofit organizations that seek to catalyze clean energy technology development.
Manchin argues for DOE’s role in technology competitiveness
Currently, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Sen. Todd Young (R-IN) are planning to make the Endless Frontier Act the centerpiece of a bipartisan legislative package focused on bolstering U.S. competitiveness in its rivalry with China. Schumer has said he would like the Senate to pass the Endless Frontier Act this spring, though its reintroduction has since been delayed.
Meanwhile, President Biden’s $2 trillion American Jobs Plan proposes that Congress allocate $50 billion to expand NSF, $40 billion to upgrade research infrastructure across universities and the national labs, and $35 billion for clean energy R&D, much of it likely to be channeled through DOE.
Congressional Democrats are aiming to adapt many aspects of the American Jobs Plan into an infrastructure spending package that has a major focus on mitigating climate change. Although that bill is apt to include funding for R&D at DOE, it is expected to be slower moving and more politically contentious than the competitiveness package. In addition, Manchin has expressed reluctance to continue using special parliamentary maneuvers to circumvent Republican opposition, which could further complicate the infrastructure package’s progress.
At last week’s hearing, Manchin did not directly address the infrastructure package. He instead focused solely on DOE’s appropriateness for inclusion in the competitiveness package, arguing his committee should not limit its perspective to a “short list of energy technologies.”
“We have a responsibility to think across the federal government when considering how to advance our research, development, and commercialization agenda so that we can identify the strengths and weaknesses at various agencies,” he explained.
Addressing Mason and Dabbar, Manchin listed the 10 technology areas specifically prioritized in the Endless Frontier Act, including artificial intelligence, quantum computing, semiconductors, synthetic biology, and advanced manufacturing. Asked whether DOE supports work in each area, they replied in every case that it does.
Barrasso made the point more vividly, producing a chart illustrating the depth of the national labs’ involvement in the 10 areas. Reviewing some of DOE’s accomplishments, he remarked, “With a track record like this, you wouldn’t think the department would have to worry about Congress giving its mission to another federal agency, yet that’s exactly what is being contemplated."
"How does such duplication help us compete with China? What kind of message does it send to the Department of Energy’s researchers who have devoted their lives to innovation? And what does it mean for the future of this committee’s work on science and technology?” he asked.
Witnesses stress complementary strengths of DOE and NSF
Responding to an inquiry from the committee, the directors of DOE’s 17 national labs have themselves called for Congress to give DOE a role in the Endless Frontier Act or any related legislation aimed at enhancing U.S. “technology leadership and economic competitiveness.”
“Specifically, we recommend a separate, substantial, targeted investment in research for DOE and the national laboratories to advance key technology areas in coordination and collaboration with NSF, and to fund increased support for and access to world-leading user facilities stewarded by DOE and utilized by NSF-supported scientists to advance scientific discovery and technology development,” their letter states.
At the hearing, Dabbar also urged Congress to include DOE, saying, “With all the proposals before the Senate, the House, and from the president, I want to add my support and the whole research community’s support for further additional investment in R&D. But … to better position ourselves globally versus the likes of Communist China, I also want to advocate for DOE to have a leadership role in any final proposal passed.”
Asked to draw distinctions between DOE and NSF, the witnesses generally agreed that NSF distributes its support more broadly across the sciences, but also that it favors academic research.
Mason remarked that NSF is “outstanding at funding a very diverse range of activities in a very much bottom-up, individual investigator-driven mode.” Stressing DOE’s “mission focus,” he said, “We don’t stop with the publications. We have to get things deployed, whether it’s deployed into the energy sector or deployed in the form of a deterrent that is handed off to the Department of Defense.”
Some of the witnesses noted DOE’s established capacity for pursuing application-oriented partnerships. Pierpoint remarked, “I think one of the unique strengths that DOE brings to the table is that, while it is not perfect, they have the best infrastructure that I know of among all agencies for partnering with the private sector.” Similarly, in calling for a national “innovation strategy,” Ladislaw pointed to DOE as the “only agency with deep expertise in energy policy, technology, market, and geopolitical factors.”
Responding to questions from committee members about protecting research against misappropriation by foreign governments, Dabbar and Mason both stressed DOE’s experience working in sensitive areas.
Mason recalled that a decade ago, when he was director of Oak Ridge National Lab, the lab fired employees who were discovered to have not disclosed their participation in a Chinese talent recruitment program, well before national intelligence officials began spotlighting that issue. “The reason we became aware of it is because we have a counterintelligence program, because of the nature of what the national labs do. We do work in classified areas. We do work in export-controlled areas,” he said.
Dabbar remarked, “You need to have a process in place, you need to have a culture in place, so that when the technology conversation moves from open science — and that’s fine to invite people from all over the world and drive it forward — but then when it starts crossing over, [you] put those controls in place.” He noted that DOE has recently implemented a detailed “risk matrix” framework that matches controls to specific technologies.
Suggestions offered for DOE policy changes
While all the witnesses lauded DOE’s role in encouraging innovation, they also suggested improvements that could be made.
For instance, Pierpoint observed that, in her experience, negotiating contracts with DOE could take “a year and sometimes more.” Urging reform of the department’s contracting systems, she argued, “The taxpayer benefits far more from commercialized technologies and jobs than it does from things like DOE ownership of intellectual property.”
Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), who chairs the Senate committee that oversees NSF, suggested more emphasis might be put on patenting research results at labs and universities in order to help protect them. Dabbar replied that Congress does not specifically appropriate funding for “legal work” such as patenting and said that “maybe that’s something to look at.”
More broadly, Pierpoint praised DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy and Office of Technology Transitions, but suggested the department still needs to respond more flexibly to variations in the barriers to commercialization across different technologies and scales of business.
“I think it’s really important that the Department of Energy continues to experiment with new kinds of tools to help improve the way that the transfer works. … Not just thinking about this as a handoff to the private sector is key,” she said.
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