A Design for New National Laboratories

By Morgan, M. Granger; White, Robert M. | Issues in Science and Technology, Winter 1993 | Go to article overview

A Design for New National Laboratories


Morgan, M. Granger, White, Robert M., Issues in Science and Technology


For entirely different reasons, both the nation's great private research laboratories and the system of federal national laboratories are in crisis today. Private labs such as AT&T Bell Laboratories, which produced the transistor and laser, Xerox PARC, which pioneered personal computing, and the IBM Watson Research Center, which produced the RISC computer architecture, have been major contributors to technological innovation. But a variety of factors have hurt the private labs. Bell Labs lost its subsidy from telephone ratepayers when telecommunication was deregulated. IBM and GM's labs began to decline when their large and successful parent firms failed to anticipate how quickly their industry and markets were changing.

Companies face growing competitive pressures and increasing difficulty in capturing the benefits of their research. These factors, together with the apparent ease with which companies have been able to acquire technology from other sources, have pushed corporate research programs toward shorter-term, more-applied work. From a national perspective, such a just-in-time technology strategy will work only if someone else continues to make fundamental technological innovations.

In parallel with the decline of the private labs, the end of the Cold War has left many large federal laboratories searching for new missions. Lab managers and politicians are scrambling to justify their continued existence. Not surprisingly, several of the more imaginative supporters of the federal labs are now talking about using them to produce the basic technological innovations that in the past flowed from the great private laboratories.

There is a basic logic to this argument. The difficulty is that the system of national labs we need is not the system we have. More than 700 federal laboratories serving a wide variety of missions are in operation today. Labs whose mission is to run specific national research facilities such as radio telescopes or particle accelerators or those that serve essential but narrowly defined missions of their sponsoring agencies are not our focus. Rather, our concern is with the large general-purpose facilities such as Los Alamos, Sandia and Lawrence Livermore, whose principal missions are now in question.

Recent reports such as the Office of Technology Assessment's Defense Conversion: Redirecting R&D and the Council on Competitiveness's Industry as a Customer of the Federal Laboratories, as well as several legislative initiatives, have addressed the question of how the existing labs might be incrementally redirected to better serve contemporary needs. We ask a more fundamental question: What should a new system of national labs look like if we could design it from scratch with the objective of filling key gaps in our national innovation system?

Building a new lab system

The new system should consist of a set of national labs whose objective is to provide a stream of innovative ideas and technologies in broad areas that have potential commercial relevance. To provide focus, each lab should be loosely built around one, or a few, key areas such as information and communication technologies; ground transportation technologies; energy technologies (with emphasis on conservation and renewable energy); aerospace technologies; biotechnologies; and chemical process technologies. Although there should also be a dedicated facility for materials, specialized materials groups should be included in most of the other labs. To promote healthy intellectual competition, some limited overlap in lab missions would be desirable.

Most of the work undertaken in these new labs should be precompetitive and fairly basic in nature. However, it should be motivated by and related to significant problems in the area of each laboratory's technology mission. Rigorous quality standards, including peer-reviewed publication and a personnel system based on peer review for periodic reappointment or promotion, should be standard.

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