Report: Political Environmentalism Is Hampering Research At Federally-Funded National Laboratories

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Tim Pearce Energy Reporter
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  • Federal regulations might hamper innovation at national labs
  • The national labs seem to be more efficient than privately funded researchers, according to a think tank 
  • However, private research and development funding has an edge on the national labs 

Federal regulations may be hampering innovation in the Department of Energy’s national laboratories, through which the government invests in energy, science and weapons research, according to a new report from American Action Forum.

The national laboratories grew out of U.S. funded research into the atomic bomb. The labs are privately operated institutions that, like contractors, accept federal funding in exchange for government direction and regulation.

The American Action Forum, or AAF, a center-right think tank, studied the value of the research done by the national labs and other, non-federally funded forms of research and development. The goal was to discover if the 17 national labs, using about $5.4 billion in non-weapons research funding, create similar or more economic value than private and global alternatives.

The national labs seem to create more economic value than private and global researchers, AAF found. The think tank believes national labs can be more valuable and efficient, however, if granted more separation from politically driven regulators.

“A significant focus of the [national lab’s] energy research is on clean energy technology, specifically renewable energy and energy efficiency,” the AAF reports states. “However, some of the best environmental benefits from the Labs’ research did not come from those programs, but rather from fossil fuel research on horizontal drilling technology, which has since enabled cleaner natural gas to replace coal.”

Also, federal regulations interfere with scientists and researchers’ ability to travel and meet with peers at conferences and fairs. While meant to ensure labs are using taxpayer money is not wasted, reforms could be introduced to allow researchers more flexibility to attend workshops with experts in their fields of study, AAF found.

The labs receive around $12 billion from the government in total, with most devoted to weapons research.

Patent for patent, national labs seem to be more efficient than private companies in creating economically viable inventions. National labs spend about $16 million per patent license, meaning an invention that is bought by a company and used to create some economic value. The amount is about four times lower than the $64 million companies spend per patent license.

Important factors cannot be accounted for in the data, however, and leave some doubt to how valuable national lab research actually is. A part of the difference between the number of licenses sold could be that patent licenses are generally easier to purchase from national laboratories. Therefore, if a private company makes a similar invention at the same time as a national lab, the lab will likely see the revenue from the patent.

Private research and development funding has an edge on the national labs in the amount of investment per patent. On average, a national lab spends $7.6 million to develop and patent an invention, which is nearly double what private industry pays per patent, $4.5 million.

The White House recently released a budget proposal for fiscal year 2019 that cuts funding for energy innovation by about $3.3 billion, but adds an $1.5 billion in new science spending. Both budget changes would largely affect the funding to the Energy Department’s national labs.

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