Past experience with the NIH model of technology transfer, an outgrowth of R&D funding and collaborative work with the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries, demonstrates that people from government and industry can work together successfully. Many of these joint projects have moved research results out of federal laboratories and into the marketplace. One important reason for this success has been the high degree of interaction between researchers in separate organizations in the biomedical field. The critical interface necessary for successful transfer and adoption of the technology involved is people-to-people contact.

The Department of Energy has the most extensive program in technology transfer to the commercial sector. The agency’s multidisciplinary, contractor-operated laboratories are widely considered to be among the most promising federal facilities for technology commercialization. There are nine multiprogram laboratories: Argonne, Brookhaven, Lawrence Berkeley, Oak Ridge, and Pacific Northwest emphasize energy R&D; Lawrence Livermore, Los Alamos, Sandia, and Idaho Engineering are weapons labs. There are also smaller laboratories noted for their work in energy research and applications, including the Solar Energy Research Institute (SERI), the department’s main laboratory for basic and applied R&D in solar and renewable energies. SERI’s R&D programs include close interaction with the private sector. The multidisciplinary nature of some DOE laboratories involves research and development in fields such as electronics and advanced materials. These are areas that rely increasingly on advances in crosscutting technologies. As noted earlier, almost all DOE laboratories are GOCOs: government-owned facilities that are operated by contracting firms and universities or other nonprofit institutions.

Potential Contributions of Federal Laboratories to Private Sector Technology Goals

Over the past decade, Congress and the executive branch have attempted to make civilian technology development an explicit mission of the federal laboratories. Yet, as measured by the number of patents or the amount of royalties resulting from laboratory transfer activities, this mission has not been fulfilled. In fact, few federal inventions are transferred out of these laboratories. A congressional committee investigating progress in meeting these goals found technology transfer efforts to be “under-staffed, under-directed, and only marginally focused."77 These problems may not be as important as the key requirement for effective transfer—a close customer relationship. They are, however, inhibiting laboratory-industry collaboration.

One indication of the lack of success in forging close relationships is the small output of technologies licensed to the private sector from federal

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