A Department of Energy foundation: An idea whose time has come

A Department of Energy foundation: An idea whose time has come
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When it comes to carbon dioxide emissions, Congwang Ye thinks outside of the box. As a member of the research staff at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Ye studies how to capture carbon dioxide with reusable microcapsules. Thanks to his efforts, this technology is now being adapted for use in breweries — not just cutting harmful emissions to the atmosphere, but also significantly reducing breweries’ operating costs.

Craig Evans and Julia Song also are innovators. They co-founded ESS, Inc. to create a new kind of battery that would be more durable and secure for use in large-scale commercial, utility, and military systems. ESS is now working with DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory to validate and optimize its technology.

Ye, Evans, and Song are exceptional, and not only because of their technical skills and creativity. They have found ways to work with DOE labs to bring substantial benefits to the American economy and energy system. Not very many people and companies do. DOE invests about $14 billion per year in its 17 national research laboratories. That is a lot of money, and it supports many brilliant minds, but too often the ideas these investments lead to, and the skills that they nurture, are trapped inside the fence line of the labs.

That’s why it is so encouraging that Sens. Chris Coons (D-Del.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), along with Reps. Ben Lujan (D-N.M.) and Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), have introduced legislation that would create a Department of Energy Foundation (DOEF). Building on precedents at federal biomedical research agencies, DOEF would leverage the U.S. government’s investments in energy R&D to attract further investment from the private sector to accelerate the maturation of clever ideas hatched at DOE’s national labs. It would also strengthen hands-on collaboration between private-sector innovators and lab experts. Such steps are particularly vital now as the United States confronts the enormous challenge of transforming its energy system to become cleaner, more reliable, and more affordable. DOEF is an idea whose time has come.


The notion of a foundation associated with a government agency may seem odd, but in fact it’s well-established. Most public universities, which are state agencies, have associated foundations in order to receive philanthropic donations that support research on campus. At the federal level, biomedical researchers at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Veterans Administration, the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control, and the Department of Defense all receive support from foundations established by Congress. The Foundation for the NIH has raised over $1 billion from individuals, companies, and charitable foundations in its two-decade history.

Such foundations benefit government researchers, donors, and the nation as a whole. For government researchers, foundation grants serve as a force multiplier, providing them with additional funding to focus on problems they are passionate about. Donors are able to mobilize outstanding researchers to tackle problems they care about, even if those researchers are civil servants and therefore ineligible to compete for individual or foundation grants the way that academic scientists would. The nation gets more from the money it has already spent to build top-notch intramural research teams to focus on public problems.

Foundations can help agencies like NIH and DOE speed the fruits of research into practice by supporting collaboration between their own laboratories and those affiliated with corporate and charitable foundation donors. The Biomarkers Consortium, for instance, is a public-private research partnership managed by the Foundation for the NIH that seeks to discover, develop, and seek regulatory approval for biological markers. The consortium has worked in 13 disease areas, tested new models for clinical trials, helped establish an accelerated approval pathway for new breast cancer medicines, and supported the advancement of six new drugs.

DOE’s national laboratory system has been called a “crown jewel” by Energy Secretary Rick PerryJames (Rick) Richard PerryFive Republican run-offs to watch in Texas Trump signs order to boost efficiency in federal agencies House votes to advance Yucca Mountain nuclear waste project MORE and a “national treasure” by his immediate predecessor, Ernest MonizErnest Jeffrey MonizIran deal on the line as Trump nears deadline Kerry making quiet play to save Iran deal with foreign leaders: report Overnight Energy: Pruitt defends first-class travel | Watchdog says contractor charged Energy Department for spas, lobbying | Experts see eased EPA enforcement under Trump MORE. The national labs are home to multidisciplinary groups and specialized scientific facilities, especially in the physical sciences and engineering, that are unmatched by anything academia has to offer. These resources are focused on some of the world’s most pressing challenges, like making the electricity grid more reliable and sustainable and making industrial energy use cleaner and more efficient.

Bureaucratic barriers and weak incentives, however, combine to limit the impact that the labs have on the energy system and the economy. DOE has been working in recent years to fix this problem. Congwang Ye joined Energy i-Corps, a relatively new program that helps lab researchers become entrepreneurs. ESS, Inc., was in the first cohort of NREL’s Innovation Incubator, which gives promising start-ups access to the lab’s expertise and equipment. 

DOEF would represent another important tool in the effort to make knowledge created by the national labs have a bigger impact on society. It would provide a new vehicle for the growing number of philanthropists interested in accelerating the ongoing energy transition to support work at the labs. It would make it easier for entrepreneurs and established companies to create partnerships with national lab experts and simplify the process of commercializing the results of such partnerships.  

DOEF has won the endorsement of many leaders of science and business. The American Energy Innovation Council, a group of twelve current and former CEOs and investors, such as Microsoft’s Bill Gates and venture capital legend John Doerr, wrote that foundations like DOEF “attract significant private capital and operate at the forefront of their respective research fields.” Our own organization, the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a leading science and technology policy think tank, has long championed approaches like DOEF that would accelerate energy innovation and increase the return that the nation receives from its investments in federal science and technology.  

So DOEF is certainly an idea whose time has come. We encourage Congress to act quickly on this bipartisan initiative.

Stephen Ezell (@SJEzell) is vice president of global innovation policy at the nonprofit Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF). David M. Hart (@ProfDavidHart) is a senior fellow in energy innovation policy at ITIF.