The National Laboratories - A New Role?

The role of the 10 national laboratories in the Nation's S&T enterprise has been the subject of an ongoing dialogue on their future, with respect to their R&D programs becoming more commercially relevant. Like the rest of the defense community, these laboratories are facing the challenge of finding alternative activities in light of continuing reductions in military expenditures. In addition, not only are no new nuclear weapons now planned, but also interest in expanding civilian nuclear energy capabilities has been on the decline because accidents like those at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl and the problem of nuclear waste cleanup and disposal have made future investment in nuclear technology problematic.

Increasingly, the national laboratories have begun to redefine their missions by changing the focus of their research activities to include participation in S&T projects likely to provide commercial benefits to the private sector. Recent laws have made technology transfer an official mission of the laboratories. (See text table 4-4.) Evidence of the impact of these laws is found in the growing number of CRADAs. (See Technology Transfer Activities in this chapter.)

In 1994, Congress asked the General Accounting Office (GAO) to conduct a study of the 10 national laboratories to assess their potential for commercial product development.

Since 1980, the Congress has had an active interest, expressed in a series of laws, in seeing that more of the national laboratories' outputs be put to commercial uses. Changing needs for defense technology resulting from the end of the Cold War and concern with maintaining U.S. industry's competitiveness in global markets have led several members of Congress to open a public debate and propose new legislation that addresses the national laboratories' missions, structure, and cooperation with industry. Among the alternatives being considered in the public debate are reducing all the laboratories' budgets, a consolidating or closing some of them, and redirecting their weapons development mission toward commercial product-related R&D in such areas as technology development for environmental restoration, energy, and high-performance computing (GAO, 1994).

After reviewing data for FY 1992 and earlier years and interviewing laboratory officials, the GAO investigators concluded the following:

Although it is still too early to document Federal laboratories' contribution to product development, there is clear evidence of growing cooperation between FFRDC researchers and researchers in other sectors. Coauthorship patterns of articles published in a set of about 4,000 scientific and technical journals c show that, between 1981 and 1993, industry, universities, FFRDCs, and Federal agencies each experienced a steady increase in the number and percentage of publications with authors outside their own research community.

The growth in multi-institutionally authored papers was particularly notable for researchers employed at FFRDCs. In 1981, 39 percent of scientific and technical papers published by FFRDC researchers were authored with researchers in other sectors; in 1993, the share of FFRDCpapers published with non-FFRDC co-authors had risen to 57 percent. Similarly, 58 percent of papers by researchers in Government agencies in 1993 had co-authors from other sectors (including FFRDCs), compared with 49 percent in 1981.

A recent study covering 1981-91 (Stevens, Kroll, and Narin, 1994) shows that, generally, the share of multi-institutionally authored papers grew for each individual Federal agency during this 10-year period, with the greatest growth (in both absolute numbers and as a percentage of publications)reported for NIH- and NASA-based researchers, and for several of DOE's FFRDCs (notably Lawrence Livermore, Sandia, Oak Ridge, and Argonne).

a The DOE Secretary has proposed trimming $10.6 billion from the agency's budget over the next 5 years.

b More recent data show that the three weapons labs (Los Alamos, Sandia, and Livermore) have now signed more than 300 CRADAs with industry to conduct cost-shared collaborative research.

c See Chapter 5, Academic Research and Development:Infrastructure and Performance for a discussion of relative strengths and shortcomings of bibliometric data and additional analysis of intersectoral publication matters. Data presented here are drawn from appendix table 5-37.