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Championing Responsible National Security Policy

Energy Labs Feel the Heat as Their Effectiveness Is Examined

The Department of Energy oversees seventeen national laboratories that conduct complex scientific research for the federal government and private enterprise. Ten of these labs are under the purview of the Department of Energy’s Office of Science; three are the responsibility of the National Nuclear Security Administration and are devoted to nuclear weapons research; and the remaining four labs are focused on energy development, including oil and natural gas, renewable energy and energy efficiency, and nuclear energy.

This system has produced scientific breakthroughs and important research over its history. Even so, the Project On Government Oversight believes there is redundancy within the seventeen labs and that consolidation will help reduce wasteful and unnecessary spending and make the labs more efficient.

Late last year, Congress established the Commission to Review the Effectiveness of the National Energy Laboratories, or CRENEL, in order to reduce redundancy within the national laboratory system. During its first phase, the Commission will examine the labs individually to see if they are well run, if they are supporting the strategic objectives of the Department of Energy, and the extent to which they have clear, non-duplicative missions. During its second phase, the Commission will determine whether there are ways to realign and consolidate the labs and run them more efficiently, and it will assess the overall level of federal oversight.

CRENEL is comprised of seven commissioners: Norman Augustine, former Chairman of Lockheed Martin; Wanda Austin, President and CEO of the Aerospace Corporation; Charles Elachi, Director of Jet Propulsion Laboratory at NASA; Paul Fleury, professor of Engineering and Applied Physics at Yale University; Susan Hockfield, professor of Neuroscience and President Emerita at MIT; Richard Meserve, President of the Carnegie Institution for Science; and Cherry Murray, Dean of the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS).

The law that created CRENEL, Public Law 113-76, explicitly stated that its commissioners cannot be an employee of “a national laboratory or site under contract with the Department of Energy.” Yet, two commissioners, Fleury and Murray, received conflict of interest waivers because they are paid consultants to some of the labs that CRENEL is tasked with reviewing.

POGO investigator Michael Smallberg has taken issue with these exemptions, telling the energy publication Greenwire, “The provision indicates to me that Congress wanted people on the commission who could serve independently and were not tied to these labs. When I see two people serving on the commission who have consulting contracts with some [of] the labs, it’s hard for me to square that with the language in the law.”

So far, CRENEL has held two meetings.

Last week, CRENEL held its second meeting at the Institute for Defense Analyses in northern Virginia. During the first portion of the meeting, nongovernmental analysts presented findings and recommendations from previous reports that examined ways to improve the national laboratory system. While the three briefings contained some commonality in their observations, their recommendations mostly focused on different aspects of the lab system and ways to improve their effectiveness.

In the afternoon, commissioners heard from representatives of the three different types of DOE labs: weapons labs, energy development labs, and science labs, all of which sang their own praises and offered no recommendations for increased efficiency.

Fearing that its national lab system is coming under fire and that tighter federal budgets will result in potential closings or consolidation, the Department of Energy is hitting back. Just a day after the second CRENEL meeting, Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz hosted a “National Lab Day” on Capitol Hill in order to demonstrate and bolster support within Congress for the Department of Energy’s lab system.

During the event, Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Jim Risch (R-ID) announced the creation of a bipartisan Senate National Laboratory Caucus in order to rally their colleagues’ support for the national labs in advance of CRENEL’s eventual recommendations.

POGO believes that national labs system can and should be reformed because of existing redundancy and excess. These facilities must be viewed as national assets that can be improved through consolidation and realignment, not parochial interests that should be protected by their congressional guardians and allies.

Over the past two decades, in response to excess domestic infrastructure and facilities, the Pentagon has undergone several rounds of base realignment, closure, and consolidation through a process known as BRAC. This process is intended to examine military bases in a comprehensive fashion and provide a roadmap for consolidation that leads to federal savings and increased efficiency.

It’s imperative that CRENEL follow a similar process and recommend ways to truly improve the effectiveness of our national lab system while ensuring that the United States maintains a robust and dynamic scientific research base.