Putting innovation first at the Energy Department

Should the Senate confirm him to lead the Department of Energy (DOE), Massachusetts Institute of Technology Professor Ernest Moniz will be returning to a department he knows well from service as an under secretary during the Clinton administration. He has the opportunity to transform DOE, if he is willing to reform, restructure and refocus the organization to put energy innovation at the forefront of its agenda.

Most Americans probably assume that DOE is already focused on energy innovation; in fact, it was never properly designed for that task.

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To start with, DOE is hamstrung by its responsibilities to maintain, refurbish, and modernize the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile, and to clean up the radioactive legacy from 70 years of weapons production. These missions demand most of DOE’s budget, and much of its senior leadership’s time and attention.

While it would make sense to move these defense and environmental missions to other departments, those decisions must be made in Congress and the White House. But there is a lot that a new energy secretary could do to change DOE’s structure and culture to make it more productive.

For example, DOE suffocates the National Laboratories with relentless micromanagement, forcing them to focus on answering audits and bureaucratic directives rather than on the development of transformative technologies. Certainly Dr. Moniz is well aware of this problem, which has been documented repeatedly over the last two decades. Freeing the labs to focus on outcomes rather than processes could have far-reaching effects.

The department’s basic organizational structure also inhibits innovation. Applied energy research is currently organized within institutional silos built around discrete technologies — individual offices for nuclear energy, fossil fuels, renewables, and so forth—rather than functional missions (electric generation, transportation, etc.). This structure inhibits internal and external communication, coordination and collaboration, and makes it virtually impossible to conduct objective comparisons of technology options; each office has its own ecosystem of advocates and rent-seekers, and evaluates its own performance for the department.

Moreover, there is no enduring or systematic effort to bridge the gaps between basic science activities and applied technology challenges. Basic science is housed in a different organization, reporting to a different under secretary. We cannot be surprised that DOE has a relatively undistinguished record of overcoming fundamental technical challenges in energy and paving the way for new products and industries; the department has never been properly organized to meet that challenge.

Another one of DOE’s dirty little secrets that a veteran like Dr. Moniz should know well is that far too much of the funding Congress provides for energy research and development is diverted to administrative expenses, conferences, support service contractors and “technology deployment and commercialization activities” that do little to advance innovation. 

No doubt Dr. Moniz also knows the sad stories of wasted spending, and the enduring disconnects between DOE and the private sector companies engaged in the energy business. He also knows how difficult it is to sustain progress on long term challenges as labs, program staff and budgets get whipsawed when successive White House occupants choose the next favored technology, producing what former Senator Jeff Bingaman called DOE’s “Technology Attention Deficit Disorder.”

The solutions to these problems are neither simple nor sexy; they will require a determined leader willing to find satisfaction in organizational reform, hardly a headline-making activity. But the surest path to real success for DOE would be a sustained effort to smash the silos, surmount the institutional barriers that separate basic and applied research, impose new analytical rigor throughout the department, and insist on crisp execution of programs and contracts.

Most new cabinet secretaries come to their job with only the slightest inkling of what ails their department. Dr. Moniz is a notable exception. That is no guarantee of success—but it is one of its most important prerequisites. 

Cohen is executive director of the Clean Air Task Force. Garman, a former under secretary at the Department of Energy, is a partner at Decker Garman Sullivan and Associates. Thernstrom is executive director of the Energy Innovation Reform Project. They are authors of a new report, Putting Energy Innovation First: Recommendations to Refocus, Reform, and Restructure the U.S. Department