View from a National Laboratory
Alvin W. Trivelpiece
Oak Ridge National Laboratory
Approximately 600 "national laboratories," most with an annual budget of less than $50 million, are sponsored by U.S. government agencies. Of these laboratories, about 20 are national laboratories of the Department of Energy (DOE). Ten of these are major, multiprogram laboratories with annual budgets in excess of $100 million:
Argonne National Laboratory (ANL)
Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL)
Idaho National Energy and Environmental Laboratory (INEEL)
Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL)
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL)
Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL)
National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL)
Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL)
Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL)
Sandia National Laboratory (SNL)
Each of these laboratories carries out different aspects of the DOE's mission. As a result, they have different capabilities and facilities. Some are involved in work related to national security and nonproliferation, some in basic and applied research and development in various areas of science and technology, some in energy production and supply, and some in environmental remediation and waste management. In many areas of activity, no clean line of demarcation separates one laboratory from another.
Twenty years ago none of these laboratories had extensive contact with business or industry from the point of view of technology transfer. Today, that has all changed. The change did not occur suddenly, although some events have accelerated the commercialization of science and technology developed by the laboratories. Most notable was the discovery of high-temperature superconductivity and the concern that the United States might not have a sufficient opportunity to rapidly develop products or services based on this
discovery. This concern led to the establishment of Superconducting Pilot Centers at ANL, LANL, and ORNL. These Centers permitted, for the first time, joint industry-government funding of research and development whereby the industry partner would have proprietary rights to intellectual property that might result from the project. This approach was productive, and after a few years, legislation was passed permitting this approach for many other such arrangements. This 1989 legislation created the basis for Cooperative Research and Development Agreements (CRADAs). Today, the Department of Energy's national laboratories are engaged in more than 1,500 CRADAs supported by more than $200 million of DOE funding and a comparable level of funding by the industry partners.
CRADAs are not the only means of technology transfer from DOE's national laboratories. Industry can contract for work performed at the laboratories when the work does not compete with other activities of private industry. Typically, such work involves the use of unique scientific facilities at a laboratory—for instance, high resolution electron microscopes, synchrotron light sources, or research reactors—to analyze some material. Scientists and engineers at national laboratories can, under certain circumstances, serve as consultants to industrial organizations. In some cases, employees of the laboratories are able to gain control of the intellectual property they have helped create and start a company that takes advantage of that property.
Russia has laboratories that are in many respects the equivalent of national laboratories in the United States. Some of these laboratories had been dedicated to national security pursuits that are no longer a critical imperative. The question is how Russian laboratories can benefit Russian industry and the economy. Technology transfer may not be of major direct benefit in the short term; however, forging links between Russian laboratories and industry likely will be of great benefit to the Russian economy in the longer term. To illustrate the potential, in the United States it is estimated that over 50 percent of the jobs created in the past ten years are related to science and technology developed more than a decade ago by government, industry, and academia. For such benefits to be realized in Russia, the appropriate legal and economic framework, together with a system of personal incentives to stimulate invention and its exploitation, must be in place.
One key to stimulating technology transfer at DOE national laboratories has been the establishment of a system whereby the inventor is rewarded for a patent and shares in the licensing fees, the institution shares in the proceeds, and the federal government realizes some direct benefits from the fees. This system has been in place for about 10 years. At the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the fees earned for licenses amount to about $1 million per year. Some of this money is used to offset the costs of filing and defending patents and some of it goes to the inventors. This reward system has spurred the creation of intellectual property and its dissemination to industry.
As Russia sorts through its near-term problems of the economy and overcapacity of manufacturing, it should also devote attention to the establishment of a system that rewards invention and the development of intellectual property. Such a system should be tailored to meet the requirements of the Russian social and economic structure. In the United States, the laws pertaining to intellectual property rights and inventions are intended to maximize "fairness of opportunity" and minimize "conflict of interest." Therefore, for example, a director of a laboratory cannot approve a CRADA for a company of which he or she is part owner. It is not possible to anticipate all the circumstances that might lead to such problems in the United States or in Russia; however, it is important to develop a Russian system that Russians trust. Failure to do so would lead to a very weak system.
Another key to the stimulation of technology transfer activities at DOE national laboratories has been increasing the number of contacts between scientists and engineers at the laboratories and their counterparts at industrial sites. One way such contacts have been increased is through the "User Facilities" operated at ONRL and other DOE national laboratories. These facilities were created for various purposes. For example, the High Flux Isotope Reactor (HFIR) was intended to produce various isotopes when it was built in 1966. It also was designed to permit experiments on neutron scattering and diffraction. Today, scientists and engineers from around the world use HFIR for neutron scattering experiments to study the structure of materials and the stresses in materials caused by welding or other processing methods. There is a two-year backlog of experiments that various academic and industrial organizations want to perform at DOE user facilities. To handle some of these experiments, a $1.3 billion Spallation Neutron Source (SNS) is planned at ORNL. The SNS accommodate more than 1000 users per year, and it will be operational in 2005.
DOE user facilities generally are made available to scientists and engineers without charge, unless the user wants to have proprietary rights to the data they produce at the facility. In these cases, the cost of using the facility is charged to the user. These user facilities bring many visitors into the laboratories, and as a result, new ideas are generated that may lead to inventions. Perhaps the most important benefit comes from the contacts that take place between visiting scientists and engineers and the host laboratory staff.
The structure and function of the system of laboratories in Russia are quite different from that in the United States. Even so, Russian laboratories might find ways in which facilities such as accelerators, reactors, and computers can be used by scientists and engineers from outside the host institution to develop new products or services.