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Ideas, Thoughts, Perspectives

March 27th, 2013

The DOE National Lab System: The Most Important Pipeline

Design-Engine has a steady and consistent relationship with Sandia National Lab. Here there was a significant amount of Pro/E use among the staff and a steady stream of their people would make the trip to Chicago for Pro/E training that was customized to their skill levels and areas of focus. Sandia National Lab which is located in New Mexico and Argonne National Lab, located in the west suburbs outside of Chicago, are two of what is an entire network of 17 national labs and technology centers. While these facilities are generally federally funded, they are at the same time private sector organizations that are under contract to the Department of Energy.

In 2009 I added a National Lab grouping to our then database out of recognition of the importance of developing and nurturing relationships with these research centers.  The system of national labs had it’s origins in the late 1930’s and 1940’s, and as a direct result of the war effort was given almost unlimited funding by the early 1940’s. This allowed for breakthroughs in everything from radar and atomic energy to analog computers and new materials. During the war these research centers were then governed by an agency called the Office of Scientific Research and Development, which was headed by a visionary thinker, engineer, inventor named Vannevar Bush. Bush was also head of the MIT school of engineering in the 1930’s and was also the first president of the Carnegie Institution of Washington which is still today regarded as one of the most prestigious science research organizations in the world.

In addition to these laurels he is seen as one of the fathers of the analog computer and as early as the 1930’s created a concept he called “memex” which might be thought of as an analog precursor to Wikipedia. Which he conceived of as a data base of information that would store knowledge, text and images on various subjects using microfilm so that researchers could readily access information from a single source. In this way he can easily be seen as someone who had precognition of the internet decades before it existed. He published an essay on this subject called “As We May Think” in which he predicts and anticipates what we might think of as an interactive database decades before such ideas were actualized. It seems apparent that he may well have been the perfect one to lead the OSRD. While an entire article can be devoted to a man of this caliber of genius, one key point that should be emphasized is his core belief that federal funding is vital for the advancement of knowledge in the United States.

While the idea of government funding of research had broad based support during and after World War II, over the past few decades, starting with-in the 1980’s mantra of “government is the problem”, has had the net effect of degrading and diminishing political support for research in recent years. One is almost immediately reminded of the de-funding of stem cell research in the previous decade for political as opposed to practical reasons.

On a more positive note the current administration seems committed to funding national labs. Earlier this month the president himself, at a recent speech at Argonne National Lab, articulated the importance of improving the state of battery technology for the benefit of clean transportation and energy storage for smart grid technology.

Over the past generation government research from national labs has resulted in breakthroughs such as 80% improvements in airfoil efficiencies in wind turbines, development of non-toxic refrigerator coolants, inventing processes that remove both microbes and arsenic from drinking water, and developed methods for making air conditioners that use 90% less energy. Add to this the internet and the discovery of over 16 elements over the past several decades and we have a rough idea of the breadth of recent research that has yielded substantial positive results.

Very recent legislation that was put into effect in January of this year at the Ames Laboratory for instance has brought to existence a Critical Materials Institute to focus on finding alternatives and solutions for materials and earth metals that have extreme scarcity or are limited in their availability in the interest of energy security.

Some labs such as NREL, has at times been the victim of pendulum swings in policy depending on the administration having suffered severe cuts both in the 80s and in the middle of the last decade.

Vannevar Bush in his own era was often exasperated at the slow adoption or sheer indifference of industries themselves in the area of innovation. He expressed frustration at the slow and reluctant application of the turbo jet over the piston engine by the aircraft industry and the auto industries complete lack of interest in his proposal for more fuel efficient engines in the post war era. He would no doubt have been further dismayed by the politicization of scientific research and development. The failure to understand the full reprecussions of not being a global leader in the areas of science, technology and innovation when this in itself might well be the ultimate form of security. The cross fertilization of government, industry and academia that the national lab system is a product of, represents the best of these worlds combined with the notion that people in the political sphere who never met a weapons system they didn’t like, diminishing or depriving of the national labs of funding may well represent the ultimate in myopia and tunnel vision. The fact that partisan bickering and impasse can directly impact funding for the National Labs may well be the ultimate tragedy of our current political climate.

List of National Labs

Ames Laboratory Ames, Iowa
Argonne National Laboratory DuPage County, Illinois
Brookhaven National Laboratory Upton, New York
Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory Batavia, Illinois
Idaho National Laboratory Idaho Falls, Idaho
Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory Berkeley, California
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory Livermore, California
Los Alamos National Laboratory Los Alamos, New Mexico
National Energy Techology Laboratories Albany, OR Fairbanks, AK Morgantown, WV Pittsburg, PA Sugar Land, TX
National Renewable Technology Laboratory Golden, Colorado
Oak Ridge National Laboratory Oak Ridge, Tennessee
Pacific Northwest National Laboratory Richland, Washington
Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory Princeton, New Jersey
Sandia Mational Laboratories Albuquerque, New Mexico Livermore, California
Savannah River National Laboratory Aiken, South Carolina
SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory Menlo Park, California
Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility Newport News, Virginia

Technology Research Centers

New Brunswick Laboratory (at Argonne) Du Page, IL

Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education Oak Ridge, Tennessee
Radiological and Environmental Sciences Laboratory Idaho Falls, Idaho
Savannah River Ecological Laboratory Aiken, South Carolina

Aticle Written by: David Mazovick


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One Comment

  1. jeff

    you didn’t mention DARPA funding at all in your article. DARPA was responsible for all of the Stealth technologies through to the autonomous autos of the most recent years.

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