Should the national labs reinvent themselves?

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Then (1940s) and now at Los Alamos National Laboratory. [Image credit: Los Alamos National Laboratory]

Like a lot of Americans, I vaguely knew of Los Alamos and Oak Ridge national labs, mostly because of their involvement with the atomic bomb and national security. But it wasn’t until I worked in the communications office of Brookhaven National Laboratory last summer that I realized there was a whole system of them.

The U.S. national laboratory system employs 22,000 people at 17 labs across the country. These sprawling complexes — the backbone of basic science in the U.S. — cost their parent company the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) more than $11.2 billion in fiscal year 2015. The labs have come a long way from their origins propelling the allies to win World War II. Each lab resembles a small city, occupying acres of land, many with their own fire departments, post offices and zip codes. Basic research, from high energy physics to molecular biology, is core to the labs’ missions, which can make its immediate practicality difficult to justify to society, said Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory Director Nigel Lockyer. “We’re asking questions about the beginning of the universe. Sorry, that’s what we do,” he said. “So we’re trying to hang on to that, and we’re very proud of it. And we’re trying to tell people it has value.”

But are the labs still well equipped to do the best science? Critics, among them DOE auditors and congressional leaders, in recent years have called to shrink, consolidate or refocus the national labs. After living at a national lab for a summer, I became skeptical, too.

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