SINCE World War II, vast technical advances have sprung from the blackboards and workbenches of the national laboratories owned by the United States Department of Energy (DOE). Military and civilian research programs at the score of labs around the country have developed the nation's nuclear arsenal and delved into the secrets of matter's fundamental building blocks. ``They are essential to many areas of endeavor in the United States,'' says Edward Frieman, chairman of a DOE task force currently studying the labs. ``If they were wiped out by the stroke of a pen,'' he says, the United States couldn't get along without them.
No one's threatening to wipe out the labs, but their role is being reexamined by Frieman's group at the request of Energy Secretary James Watkins.
``You can't run this whole complex as if the world hasn't changed. It has changed,'' Dr. Frieman says. The cold war is over. And there's a new national emphasis on energy supply, the environment, education, and national competitiveness, he says.
``The question is, what do we have to do about it?'' asks Frieman, who is the director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif., and a former director of energy research at DOE. The task force will make recommendations next fall to Admiral Watkins on a strategic vision to guide the labs and preserve their value as a national technical resource.
The Integral Fast Reactor (IFR) illustrates the value of the labs. Five years of tests remain, but at this point officials at the Argonne National Laboratory in Argonne, Ill., are confident of fulfilling nuclear energy's discredited early promise of clean, cheap, safe, inexhaustible power.
As if that weren't enough, the IFR could even burn all the long-lived waste accumulating at the current generation of reactors, simplifying the nation's storage dilemma. A very small amount of IFR waste can't be reprocessed into fuel, but its radioactivity lasts only 200 years, not millions.
``Here at the national laboratory, you have the various disciplines, the chemists, the physicists, the mechanical engineers, the electrical engineers, etc., that you can bring together, as we have done, to develop a whole new reactor technology,'' says Charles Till, who directs the IFR program at Argonne. ``No where else can you do that.''
As the flagship of DOE's advanced reactor program, the IFR is important, yet it represents only $100 million out of the $6 billion in research under way at the national labs.
Already the labs are increasing their involvement in education, a necessary precursor to research, and in transferring technology to industry, a natural follow-up activity. There are serious challenges in both areas.
``Our scientists are all maturing, and we need to start to replace them. We've noticed in fact that a lot of them are dying their hair white for some reason,'' jokes Sam Bowen, of Argonne's division of educational programs.
``A lot of kids are ... finding science to be something that's really painful and boring. And they don't want to do it,'' he adds. ``That means we're going to be suffering from a lack of supply of scientists.''
A national shortfall of 675,000 scientists and engineers by the year 2006 is foreseen. The cause is the declining proportion of white males, who traditionally have pursued science careers. It's up to minorities to fill the gap.
``Unfortunately, none of them are going into science,'' says Bill Kurtis, producer of the science television series ``The New Explorers,'' which is being carried on 230 PBS stations.
AT the behest of Watkins, the national labs are looking for ways to stimulate students' interest in science. Argonne's approach was to join forces with Mr. Kurtis. The lab helped to develop classroom materials and relevant field trips to go with ``The New Explorers,'' which portrays science as an exciting career, and offered the package to Chicago schools.
Some 18,000 Chicago students have been through the resulting program. Indications are that attitudes toward science are improving, Dr. Bowen says.
Now the program is going nationwide. The first episode aired last Sunday. The materials developed by Argonne are being made available to classrooms around the country, thanks to funding from Amoco Corp. and Waste Management Inc.
Alan Schriesheim, Argonne's director, says that the lab's prestige has enabled it to attract the scientists it needs. Nonetheless, certain disciplines are facing problems nationally. For instance, there aren't enough physicists to work on all the current projects to build particle accelerators.
Some concern has been aired over the fact that advanced programs in the sciences are increasingly filled by foreign students who will take their US degrees back to their own countries.
That isn't necessarily true, though, as in the case of Raj Sekar, an Indian-born mechanical engineer who became an American citizen and is ``here to stay.'' Mr. Sekar is working on one of Argonne's smaller programs, a project that promises to reduce diesel engine pollution to zero while doubling its power.
Commercialization is probably five years away. Sekar says he hopes an American company will capitalize on the technology, but ``more likely it will be Mitsubishi or Nissan.''
``I go to Caterpillar all the time. They always say, `Well, we don't have money for that kind of work. If government will fund it, we will do it.' That's where they come from,'' Sekar says.
That ``bottom-line mentality'' is a serious hindrance to getting lab-developed technology into the hands of the US private sector, according to David Goldman, acting director of DOE's Chicago operations office. He sums it up as ``lousy management.''
Congress, eager to see US businesses gain a competitive advantage from lab research, has passed a handful of helpful laws over the past decade. Companies can get exclusive use of lab inventions. They can keep secret intellectual property they develop jointly with the national labs.
There's been no flood of new technology to the private sector, Dr. Schriesheim says, but improvement is measurable. Industry has licensed 32 inventions, including a portable toxic gas detector and a lightweight fuel cell, from Argonne alone. The lab's scientists have a financial stake in developing commercial technology, since they receive 25 percent of the revenue from licenses. They ``could get rich,'' Schriesheim says.
Argonne even encourages its scientists to leave and found companies to exploit their inventions. Since 1984, 28 of the lab's employees have done so.