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An Assessment of the SBIR Program at the Department of Energy
Energy Strategic Goal: To protect our national and economic security by promoting a diverse supply and delivery of reliable, affordable, and environmentally sound energy.
Science Strategic Goal: To protect our national and economic security by providing world-class scientific research capacity and advancing scientific knowledge.
Environment Strategic Goal: To protect the environment by providing a responsible resolution to the environmental legacy of the Cold War and by providing for the permanent disposal of the nation’s high-level radioactive waste.
The SBIR program is structured to support all four mission objectives of DoE in a manner that parallels the overall allocation of R&D funding to non-weapons programs.
Along with the other federal agencies that participate in SBIR, DoE attempts to strike a balance between these two purposes. However, at DoE, the link to agency mission—including the goal of performing quality science—is the program objective most clearly built into the program structure. During the October 24, 2002, conference that helped launch the NRC SBIR assessment, Milton Johnson, the Deputy Director for Operations in the Office of Science, stated that DoE Office of Science “lives and dies by the quality of the science” produced. “If we produce lousy science, soon we won’t get much money for it.”2 In a May 2003 meeting, Dr. Johnson stated that SBIR was regarded within DoE like any other R&D program—that is, as a vehicle by which research programs could accomplish R&D objectives.3 According to Johnson, the difference with SBIR was simply that the R&D work was performed by small businesses instead of national laboratories or universities.
However, Dr. Johnson also noted that the ability of small business to achieve excellent science is not the only measure of success. As a dual purpose program, the SBIR seeks not only to increase the involvement of small business in federal R&D but also to increase private sector commercialization of innovations derived from federal R&D. He concluded that the view at DoE (based on the agency’s interpretation of the enabling legislation) is that commercialization will follow because it is in the best interest of the performers—the small businesses themselves.4
Throughout the history of the SBIR Program at DoE, the SBIR Office has promulgated a set of evaluation criteria that reflects this upper management
Milton Johnson, “SBIR at the Department of Energy: Achievements, Opportunities, and Challenges,” in National Research Council, SBIR: Program Diversity and Assessment Challenges, Charles W. Wessner, ed., Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press, 2004.
National Research Council symposium, “SBIR Program: Identifying Best Practice,” May 28, 2005, Washington, D.C.
Interview with Arlene De Blanc, SBIR Program Analyst, Department of Energy, November 3, 2003.