The US Department of Energy and the contractors that manage its 17 national laboratories have begun mending a relationship that both sides and several advisory commissions have acknowledged has broken down over time. But with the advent of a new administration and the departure of the rapprochement’s primary champion, former Energy secretary Ernest Moniz, it’s an open question whether the momentum achieved over the past year will be sustained.

Beginning with a commission chaired by former Motorola chairman Robert Galvin in 1995, dozens of reports have drawn attention to a longstanding deterioration in DOE–contractor relations; that erosion was both caused and worsened by increased micromanagement of the labs. Steps toward reform finally began in earnest following an October 2015 report by the Commission to Review the Effectiveness of the National Energy Laboratories (CRENEL). Moniz’s attention provided further impetus.

A maze of burdensome, often duplicative, and sometimes conflicting DOE directives to...

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