Monday, June 24, 2013

Revamping The DOE Labs

A new report produced by an interesting group of organizations has recommended sweeping management changes at DOE in the structure and running of the US Department of Energy's non-weapons laboratories.

One jolt would be to name a single DOE undersecretary for science and technology to oversee the 13 nonweapons laboratories, instead of the two that do the job now. Another recommendation would remake how the department evaluates the contractors that run the labs for the federal government. The labs should also have more flexibility to set their own spending priorities, charge fees for the use of their facilities, and develop broader entrepreneurial partnerships with industry, the report asserts. The goal, the authors write, "is not to just tinker around the edges but to build policy reforms that re-envision the lab system."

The current system is enmeshed in red tape, reporting requirements, and program directives, according to the report. "Decisions that should be made by research teams and lab managers are instead preapproved and double checked by a long and growing chain of command at DOE," it notes. "At the smallest level, DOE, in concert with [the White House Office of Management and Budget] and Congress, micromanages internal lab-directed investment decisions."
This is fine and dandy, but I echo the comment by former Lab Director Burton Richter:

One former DOE lab director, however, is skeptical that implementing the report's recommendations will produce lasting change. "The report is very good in many respects, and I'm delighted to see these issues being discussed out in the light of day again," says Burton Richter, the director emeritus of DOE's SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Menlo Park, California. He supports many of the recommendations but says that the report doesn't "explain how you would actually achieve the culture change within DOE and Washington you'd need to persuade Congress and the bureaucrats to loosen the reins." He believes that a return to micromanagement is inevitable without a fundamental change in the culture. 

In other words, one has to point the finger at Congress as well, who seem to think that they know the science priorities to set, and therefore, do their own micromanagement. If the report does NOT address that and ignore this huge component, then the DOE can make as many management changes as they want and nothing will actually change.

As a former physicist that has worked at a US Nat'l Lab, I can tell you that, while adopting to the maddening array of DOE regulations and redundant directives can be a huge pain, I'd rather deal with that than the uncertain, meandering, and ill-conceived funding directives from Congress. With DOE regulation, one at least knows what what is getting into, and the bureaucracy made them slow to change. So you can expect almost the same thing year in, year out. With the politicians, who knows! It is significantly more difficult in dealing with uncertain priorities and not knowing what will happen in the next few months.

So how come no organization is doing any kind of study on how politicians screw the US science effort, huh?


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