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DOE considers whether labs need consolidation

The Department of Energy (DOE) should establish an independent panel to comprehensively examine alternatives for evaluating, consolidating and realigning the department’s R&D laboratory complex, including its national laboratories, according to a report released by DOE’s Inspector General, Gregory Friedman.

DOE operates 16 federally-funded research and development centres, at an annual cost of more than $10.4 billion. The facilities have various missions and range in size from Ames Laboratory with an annual appropriation of approximately $30 million to Sandia National Laboratories with a budget of more than $2.3bn.

On average, DOE estimates that support costs represented between 35 and 40 per cent of its total laboratory operating costs. Based on its internal data for fiscal year 2009, the department found that support costs consumed about one-third, or $3.5bn, of the total cost of its lab operations.

“We concluded that this cost structure, specifically the proportion of scarce science resources diverted to administrative, overhead, and indirect costs for each laboratory, may be unsustainable in the current budget environment,” Friedman concluded in his 10 November report.

He inquired whether there were opportunities for laboratory consolidation and realignment, including, for example, the possibility of consolidating all major non-National Nuclear Security Administration labs under the leadership of DOE’s Office of Science.

Friedman also solicited feedback on whether DOE should consider diverting R&D resources to outside technology centres, such as existing universities and non-profit research centres, as a way of reducing overheads.

According to Friedman, there had never before been such a “broad and bipartisan” consensus about the need to reduce federal spending and address the nation’s mounting debt.

“While the elements of various budget reduction plans under consideration differ on key details, dramatic change appears likely, and the impact on the department’s operations could be equally dramatic,” he concluded.

Friedman acknowledged that his suggestions could be “difficult to implement” and “highly controversial”.