National Labs play unique role in working for America

In the last decade, our nation’s energy supply has been radically transformed by technologies to harness shale gas and unconventional oil. The advancement of inexpensive renewables is now poised to improve the energy mix even further.  Since the end of the Cold War, the global use of nuclear material has been contained without incident, while emerging security challenges are being met head on with novel technologies. Millions today are alive because of drugs that the pharmaceutical industry can design with molecular precision, while a revolution in personalized medicine is under way as a result of inexpensive and rapid genomic testing.

In each of these developments, the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Laboratory System has played a unique and decisive role – a fact unknown to most Americans.

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It may be ironic, but not surprising, that our 17 National Labs, located across 14 states and employing 30,000 scientists, are sometimes better known – and envied – by those outside our borders. Since its creation at the dawn of America's scientific preeminence, the National Lab System has not focused on making headlines but on making discoveries that serve the nation.

For the first time ever, the National Lab System will come together for a science and technology exhibition on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, September 16, to demonstrate how our unique capabilities and expertise accelerate advancements in discovery science, energy innovation, environmental sustainability and national security.

As directors within the National Lab System, we are honored to steward the phenomenal resources of this one-of-a-kind research network to solve problems in the public interest. In today’s rapidly changing global environment, the list of technological demands is staggering: more and cleaner energy, better batteries, carbon capture and storage, faster and more powerful supercomputers, national security, and the development of more energy efficient homes and offices, to name just a few. Meeting these demands requires the diverse talents of many individuals, working collaboratively with one another across dozens of disciplines. The National Lab System was built and is sustained by this concept of team science for the advancement of scientific understanding and by the creation of new technologies that address grand challenges and embrace grand opportunities.

In its toolkit of scientific resources for the nation, the National Lab System invents, builds, and operates one-of-a-kind research facilities and specialized equipment found nowhere else. These unique facilities are made available to science, technology and innovation communities from across the nation on a peer-reviewed basis, providing access each year to tens of thousands of industry and university scientists, generally at no cost to their sponsoring institutions. 

These facilities, which include powerful X-ray light sources, nanoscience centers and electricity transmission grid test ranges, are more than a national resource for discovery. They are the foundries of our future technologies, occupying an experimental niche that universities and the profit-driven private sector simply cannot match. National Lab facilities support research on everything from novel materials for lighter transportation vehicles to genomic tools that improve drought resistant crops, from studying the Ebola virus to finding cures for cancer, and much more.

It’s no wonder the National Labs have also become a critical training ground for the next generation of researchers, who flock to our various sites as students and postdoctoral scientists, eager to contribute productively to society.

Indeed, so much of what we see and experience in our everyday lives – improved security at airports and for wireless devices, advanced cancer therapy, more efficient wind turbines, smart windows, computer simulation software – arose from our National Lab System, thanks to scientists whose primary role is to keep the country safe and prosperous. In a world that grows more and more complex with evermore demanding challenges, continuing to effectively marshal the resources and capabilities of the National Lab System is helping to secure and advance the nation’s global competitiveness, economic future, and national security.

The National Lab System is an American invention. It reflects and embodies the nation’s optimistic spirit. We feel that spirit every day as we tackle huge scientific and engineering problems, organize around new emergencies, or take hold of new opportunities. This spirit motivates us, challenges us, humbles us, and – as the history of the National Lab System has shown – makes certain that the public can count on us too.  

The writers form the Executive Committee of the National Laboratory Directors Council: Alivisatos, the chairman, is from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory; Arvizu  is from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory; McMillan  is from the Los Alamos National Laboratory; and Michalske  is from the Savannah River National Laboratory.

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