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Moniz takes new crosscutting approach to DOE’s R&D programs

23 September 2014
The Energy Secretary wants to recast his department’s relationship with the national laboratories as a strategic partnership.

In remarks delivered during a 16 September event to display for US senators some of the national laboratories’ capabilities, and in comments to reporters at the event, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said the labs “are playing an important role in how we think about developing our strategic programs”—crosscutting thrusts of the department that might be more fully exploited.

Moniz cited subsurface science and engineering as “a place where we are not probably as well recognized as having tremendous capacity that cuts across so many of our programs: hydrocarbon production, geothermal, nuclear waste management, carbon sequestration etc.” The agency’s high-performance computing programs, once mainly the province of the nuclear weapons enterprise, have migrated to involve primarily the science and energy programs. At a recent “ideas summit,” he said, top Department of Energy and lab officials discussed other crosscutting capabilities that the agency will propose to emphasize as part of its fiscal year 2016 budget submission.

To further the new strategic emphasis, DOE has created some new structures, including a laboratory policy council that consists of four lab directors who have been chosen by all 17 directors. And the dormant Laboratory Operations Board at DOE has been reestablished and re-chartered, he said.

At least three reviews of the national lab system are currently under way: a congressionally-mandated study of management at the National Nuclear Security Administration, which operates the three nuclear weapons labs; a separate critical look at the entire lab system ordered in the FY 2014 appropriations act; and a review that Moniz requested from a task force of his Secretary of Energy Advisory Board. This last study will examine laboratory-directed R&D (LDRD), a fraction of the labs’ budget (usually 6%) that’s set aside for spending at the director’s discretion. “The question is how well has the LDRD succeeded, and how could we improve it in terms of what is its key mission role. Does it seed brand new important areas of research that then become part of the program?” he said.

Moniz said he isn’t waiting for the results of the three reviews to act. Nor is he worried that one or more of the reviews will recommend consolidation of the labs, as some past reports have done. “If that emerges, I’ll listen to it. But I think we have a really vibrant system, and in the end, the outcome is what matters.” He cited the annual certification by the labs of the nuclear stockpile without testing, and securing loosely controlled weapons-usable materials from various places around the world as two major outcomes. “We are executing our missions,” he said.

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