Reimagining the National Laboratories

June 19, 2013

William Dube
[email protected]

WASHINGTON (June 19, 2013) - The Department of Energy's (DOE) National Laboratories System was created in the 1940s to develop the atomic bomb. From its national security origins, the Labs have become one of the centerpieces of the United States federal research enterprise, representing nearly $20 billion in annual public research dollars. However, as the pace of innovation has accelerated and the complexity of national challenges has increased, the national laboratory system has not kept stride. Significant reforms are required to better catalyze innovation and promote the 21st century economy.
To accomplish this goal, three think tanks, the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), the Heritage Foundation, and the Center for American Progress (CAP), propose a set of nonpartisan policy proposals for reforming the national laboratories. Turning the Page: Re-imagining the National Labs in the 21st Century Innovation Economy makes a series of recommendations that if enacted will increase research flexibility, allow for greater cooperation between the labs and the private sector, and promote a more cohesive and efficient research program within the Department of Energy.
"The national labs are a tremendous source of cutting-edge research and scientific talent, but their operations are still based on a decades-old management model that no longer meets the needs of our modern innovation ecosystem," notes Matthew Stepp, Senior Analyst with ITIF and lead author of the report. "This study presents a series of twelve proposals for Congress and the Administration that can ensure the labs better meet their mission and produce useful technologies that spur economic growth and create jobs."

While efforts to reform the lab system have become highly politicized, ITIF, Heritage, and CAP have been able to agree on common sense reforms for basic, good governance of the labs. As stated in the report, "These recommendations are as relevant to a large, highly-funded research agenda as they are to a much more limited one."
"A system that allows the market to pull technologies out of the federal research establishment rather than them being pushed into the market by Washington is the best way to get more successes like GPS and fewer failures like synfuels," adds Jack Spencer, a Senior Fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

"These pragmatic reforms won't cost the taxpayer anything, but will lead to better research, more innovation, and greater economic growth," says Sean Pool, a former policy analyst and managing editor of CAP's Science Progress program. "But pragmatic does not mean less bold. I'm pleased that we were able to find consensus across ideological lines around a set of reforms that are both ambitious and practical." 

The reforms presented fall into three main categories: (1) removing DOE micromanagement of lab decisions and replacing it with more robust contractor accountability; (2) reforming the DOE program offices to better coordinate lab stewardship, budgeting, and research; and (3) providing better incentives and flexibility for the labs, industry, and universities to move promising technologies to market.

"The national labs have been a tremendous driver of innovation and business development in the past," Stepp adds. "But the reforms we propose today are critical to the labs producing more economy-transforming research. If three ideologically diverse organizations can agree on these issues, surely Washington can as well." 

Read the report.




The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) is a non-profit, non-partisan think tank whose mission is to formulate and promote public policies to advance technological innovation and productivity internationally, in Washington, and in the states. Recognizing the vital role of technology in ensuring prosperity, ITIF focuses on innovation, productivity, and digital economy issues. Learn more at