WASHINGTON, D.C. – Micromanagement and mandatory competition of Department of Energy (DOE) lab contracts may prove counterproductive and detrimental to the core scientific missions of the labs, witnesses today warned the House Energy Subcommittee. Members agreed with Administration and General Accounting Office (GAO) witnesses, however, that some government oversight of lab contractors is necessary, but questioned whether contract mechanisms can be a successful management tool.

Subcommittee Chairman Judy Biggert (R-IL) said, “A one-size-fits-all approach to contracting may not be appropriate given the DOE’s diverse facilities and mission, including weapons design and production, environmental clean-up, product engineering, and, of course, science.  DOE must establish clear criteria to guide decisions to extend or compete contracts so that lab managers understand exactly how they are to be judged, and what the consequences will be should they fail to meet expectations.”

“I am confident that the Department of Energy can work through its contract management issues,” added Subcommittee Ranking Member Nick Lampson (D-TX).  “I hope we don’t lose sight of the fact that the DOE labs do work that is important to the nation.  Controversies over cost overruns, credit card abuses and security lapses need to be addressed head on to insure that the science outcomes in the DOE labs remain sound and their reputations for excellence emerge untarnished.”

Members expressed concern that oversight efforts of DOE labs focused too much on administrative aspects and left out the important and by most accounts highly successful scientific missions of the labs.  Dr. John McTague, former Vice President of Lab Management for at the University of California, agreed and pointed out that the only Federal Funded Research and Development Centers (FFRDC) that were subject to such intense scrutiny were DOE’s labs.  “What, if anything, is fundamentally different about the DOE management of FFRDCs, which has caused the focus on their labs and not on the many other FFRDCs sponsored by other agencies such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Department of Defense, National Science Foundation, Federal Aviation Administration, and Internal Revenue ?” questioned McTague.

The General Accounting Office reiterated its support for using contract mechanisms, including open contract competition, as a management tool.  “We don’t see that you’d preclude world-class science by demanding accountability,” said GAO’s Director of Natural Resources and Environment, Robin Nazarro.   However, Nazarro also noted that, “just competing a contract does not ensure that contractor performance will improve.”

Under Secretary of Energy Robert Card testified that DOE has had success with competitive contracts. “The Department has demonstrated to its incumbent contractors its willingness to engage in competition when necessary so that contractors do not consider their continued contractual relationship with the government a foregone conclusion,” noted Card. “DOE has used this competitive pressure to ensure that the contractors focus on good performance and the Department’s needs and concerns.”

The scientific missions of the DOE research labs cause an inherent friction with typical means of oversight, such as competition, testified Dr. Paul Fleury and Dr. McTague. Fleury, who served as Vice President of Research and Exploratory Technology at Sandia Labs, said that initial oversight efforts of the lab “led to decreased scientific and technological productivity, increased staff both inside and outside the lab dedicated to preparing for endless audits and policing compliance, confusion about lines of authority and accountability and a noticeable erosion of the sense of trust and teamwork so necessary for a productive partnership.”

McTague added that despite a few high profile incidents, the DOE labs have maintained a stellar level of success for many decades. As such, he cautioned, “Whatever we do should be incremental, not revolutionary, and should be reversible if experience warrants it.”

“The best management of science is frequently invisible management,” said Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-MI).  “Scientists are driven by their curiosity and love of discovery, and voluntarily work long hours.  Management’s role is to establish the research goals and give the scientists the equipment, facilities and personnel they need to reach the goal.  My concern is that federal management is more involved now than in the past and scientists spend too much time on paperwork and not enough on lab work.”