Energy Secretary Eager to Adapt National Labs to Business Needs

Companies turn to government labs for research and development

ENERGY Secretary Hazel O'Leary says integrating national laboratories more closely with the country's economic needs is an important goal of the Clinton administration. At a meeting with Monitor journalists last week, she noted that several bills in Congress deal with the issue.

``Our administration has been working quite hard to try and focus the capability of the labs to deliver what they can,'' she said

The Department of Energy has 27 laboratories in the United States. Research at the labs spans all major scientific and engineering diciplines.

``Big business in the United States has always recognized the department's labs are where you get these multidisciplinary teams,'' Ms. O'Leary said.

``Where the work now has to be done is to clearly match the initiatives coming out of government to the national labs themselves,'' she added.

Research and development

Because some private companies no longer have the capability to do all their own research and development, either basic or applied, they ``are rushing back'' to the labs, she said. ``So our challenge is as a government ... to try and rationalize the labs, and in so doing make some real determinations, not on our own but with the private sector generally, [about] where the real expertise lies.''

In light of cancellation of the supercollidor atom-smasher project that was being built in Waxahachie, Texas - the government's biggest science project - O'Leary stressed the importance of Congress changing its track record of ``start-and-stop projects.''

``So many times we've built an expectation in government ... that we would deliver exactly what we said on the day, and it has not occurred,'' she said.

``What the science community is really gonzo about is that the budget in support of the supercollidor is now being used to close it down,'' O'Leary said. Some scientists hold that the money should have been deployed in support of other projects.

``But you don't walk away from a set of obligations and take that money and immediately move it,'' she said.

Agreement with Russia

On the top of her agenda, O'Leary said, is an agreement that the US Department of Energy recently reached with Russia to provide that country with technology to help close down two of its nuclear reactors, Tomsk and Krasnoyarsk. The Tomsk plant will be converted to natural gas and Krasnoyarsk will be converted to coal, she said.

``I'm recognizing in our administration this real committment to energy efficiency that ties so carefully to our global climate change initiatives,'' she said.

``If you had asked me six months ago ... if we would be having a breakthrough this quickly, I would say no.''

``[The Russians] continue to tell us that while they're willing to back out of these most dangerous reactors, because the international leadership has demanded it, they continue to plan for a nuclear future into 2010.''

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