DOE cannot quantify research lab gains: GAO

Technology transfer efforts not uniformly reported, the Government Accountability Office charges

The Energy Department runs or funds 17 national laboratories, all of which produce scientific research that private industry and others use to develop new technologies. The agency, however, doesn't have adequate reporting measures in place to quantify how much success it is actually having getting these findings put to commercial use, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) states.

"DOE cannot determine its laboratories’ effectiveness in transferring technologies outside DOE because it has not yet established departmentwide goals for technology transfer and lacks reliable performance data," according to the report, titled "Technology Transfer: Clearer Priorities and Greater Use of Innovative Approaches Could Increase the Effectiveness of Technology Transfer at Department of Energy Laboratories."

Through its labs, DOE spends billions each year on advanced scientific research. Private enterprises have used this work to make advances on computer hardware, wind turbines, biofuels and countless other commercial fields. The process of moving government research out into the commercial sector, where it can fuel the country's economic growth by spurring the development of new products, is known as technology transfer. This work also helps the agencies, which can reuse the technology at lower cost and even generate income from the work. In 2008, DOE lab patents brought in almost $44 million, according to the report.

Over the past few decades, Congress has put various laws in place to help foster more technology transfer from agencies to the commercial sector. The Technology Transfer Commercialization Act of 2000 requires all agencies that operate labs to prepare reports of technology transfer activities to the Office of Management and Budget.

Moreover, the Energy Policy Act of 2005 required that the DOE established goals for its technology transfer efforts and provide plans for implementing those goals. DOE was supposed to do this by February 2006, but by the time the investigation was completed, earlier this year, the agency had yet to submit its plans to Congress or establish departmentwide goals.

Congress had tasked the GAO with investigating how much technology transfer DOE was doing, and how well the agency was documenting the process. For DOE, documenting the effectiveness of its technology transfer efforts is a particularly daunting task, given that the 17 laboratories work autonomously from one another. Potential technology-transfer activities include patent license agreements, technology licensing, user-facility agreements, and cooperative research and development agreements.

GAO investigators interviewed officials responsible for each laboratory's technology-transfer activities, as well as reviewed the paperwork each lab submitted. The investigators found that not all the labs report on their technology-transfer success in the same way. For instance, 10 of the 17 laboratories report that work-for-others agreements made with other federal agencies as be cases of technology transfer. The others labs did not report these agreements as such, because they were between two government agencies, rather than between an agency and commercial enterprise.

"This difference may stem from the fact that DOE’s policies do not clearly define in all cases what activities and types of agreements constitute technology transfer, or the policies provide conflicting views," the report states.

The investigators found other examples of confusion over what constitutes technology transfer. For instance, only 11 labs consider publishing or presenting research findings to be examples of technology transfer. Officials from five labs considered economic development programs, in which researchers advise local businesses, to be technology transfer; the rest did not track such programs as examples of technology transfer.

"Without a clear definition, it is impossible to accurately quantify the overall extent of technology transfer at DOE’s laboratories because the decision to include or exclude certain agreements and activities can materially alter any measure of technology transfer," the reports concludes.

In 2007, the agency did establish a Technology Transfer Policy Board, but further progress at develop an agencywide plan has put on hold until a director of technology transfer can be found. The agency has submitted annual reports to OMB, though the source material provided to the agency varies from lab to lab. Investigators also found errors and omissions in the material that was submitted.

About the Author

Joab Jackson is the senior technology editor for Government Computer News.

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