Moniz touts lab research, addresses management issues

U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz touted the strengths of the national lab system — and addressed a historically dysfunctional relationship between the labs and DOE — during a Tuesday call with reporters.

Editor’s note: Due to a reporting error, information about Nobel Prizes awarded for national laboratory research was incorrect. Since 2008, six Nobel Prizes in physics and chemistry were awarded for research affiliated with the labs.

Outgoing Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz on Tuesday looked to underscore the “extremely vital” science and technology work occurring at the nation’s 17 national laboratories, as a new administration prepares to take over later this month.

The U.S. Department of Energy this week released a 212-page report to Congress that offers a wide-ranging status update on the laboratory system, outlining both research accomplishments and management problems. In a call with reporters, Moniz said he hoped the report would serve as the first iteration of an annual update to Congress on the labs.

“We are a science and technology agency at our core,” Moniz said. “And the national labs, the 17 national lab system, is our critical asset for carrying out that job. The laboratories are a national asset.”

The report and Moniz’s comments come at an uncertain time for many in the lab system, including Idaho National Laboratory. A questionnaire from President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team last month appeared to take aim at certain elements of the laboratories, including research work tied to climate change. Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who was picked by Trump to replace Moniz, said in the 2012 presidential campaign that DOE should be eliminated.

The report’s creation was in response to a 2015 recommendation by the Commission to Review the Effectiveness of the National Laboratories, a body mandated by Congress.

But Moniz said the report also will serve another useful purpose.

“With the change of administration coming, we thought it would also be an excellent document to provide a new team with a comprehensive picture about the laboratories,” he said.

Other than touting the labs’ strengths, the report addressed several problems brought up in the commission’s findings. The commission, as well as prior reviews, found a dysfunctional and “transactional” relationship between DOE leaders and the labs themselves, run by contractors.

The report outlines six areas Moniz said the department is focusing on to improve the relationship. Examples include DOE “recognizing value” in the lab system and “rebuilding trust.”

Steps to rebuild trust include holding regular meetings between DOE and lab leadership, and in some cases altering the way lab contracts are awarded, according to the report.

“This report, I hope, captures the fact that the labs are extremely vital, and that we have made real progress in a strategic partnership between the department’s leadership and the national laboratories’ leadership,” Moniz said.

The largely positive report provides an overview and explains accomplishments of each national laboratory.

It highlighted INL’s Advanced Test Reactor, saying the lab’s unique capabilities are centered around the facility. It mentions INL’s work on the space battery that powered NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto, as well as the lab’s physics simulation environment, known as MOOSE.

The report mentions that six Nobel Prizes in physics and chemistry were awarded for research affiliated with DOE labs since 2008, when President Barack Obama took office.

Moniz also stressed how the labs serve an important “on-call” function for crises and major events around the world.

Lab experts helped figure out how to control the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, Moniz said. They researched what led to the Aliso Canyon natural gas leak in Southern California in 2015.

The labs immediately responded to help with the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan in 2011. And they conducted “nearly real-time technical analysis that was needed to guide our negotiations” during the Iran nuclear deal, Moniz said.

“I’m trying to capture the importance of these laboratories, which is really the foundation of what (DOE is) doing,” he said.

Luke Ramseth can be reached at 542-6763. Twitter: @lramseth