What does it mean for our national labs to be good neighbors? What does it mean for our labs to be meaningful employers? What does it mean for our labs to be part of a vision for the town and the region – an anchor tenant, if you will, in the economic development trajectory of the area around the lab?
To answer these questions, in June of this year, the Office of Science began Science and the Community, an experiment in community engagement. The initiative draws together members of the community in discussions where I and the directors of each of the labs discuss the future of our laboratories and their roles in the regions where they are located.
The audience for these conversations is diverse: business leaders and elected officials, students, teachers, and future scientists. Anyone who has been impacted by the labs or who themselves has an impact on the community in which the lab resides are welcome to take part. Through these roundtables, we hope to start to understand what the community thinks it means to have a national laboratory in its back yard.
I want to thank James Akin in my office and Scott Santamaria and the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs team here at DOE for their efforts in organizing these conversations. These roundtables require a lot of planning and effort, and the end result is engagement that is a bit unprecedented for us.
By unprecedented, I mean that the Department of Energy’s Office of Science is pretty new at this sort of community and stakeholder engagement. It’s not in our DNA. Many of the 17 DOE national laboratories date from the Cold War or earlier and our roots are in defense.
So we spent the first 50 years or so trying not to tell anyone what we were doing. But now, we’re asking: How are we doing? How can we fit in better? How can we help grow the community and the region?
One way we believe we can help these regions is transforming our scientific research into things that are useful to the laboratories’ immediate communities.
While still hewing close to our mission – basic science – we want our labs to spend less time looking inward and more time figuring out how to be relevant to science and society.
On one hand, I want to emphasize that we are thinking differently about our labs at the Department of Energy. On the other hand, we’re learning more about what makes the communities around our labs tick. We want to understand how we can best fit in and contribute.
We can do great science and also be great at training students, including technicians and trade students. We can do great science and be great at transitioning that science to the private sector. It’s not a one-or-the-other choice. Basic science is our mission, but we also want to be looking out for and facilitating tech transition. Basic science doesn’t have to mean basic science in a vacuum. Computing, AI, and microelectronics are all examples of what is possible in a “blended” mission space.
But what will ultimately work best is something at the intersection of each lab’s strengths and what is going on in the local region - in terms of startups, concentrations of talent, or other pathways to commercialization.
Diversification is not just about writing checks from the Federal government. As we contemplate investments, we’re looking for partnership, participation, and buy-in – skin in the game.
If we’re going to invest in new facilities and buildings for a lab, we’d like to see the relevant university, town, and state contribute to some of it and also to growing the region.
If we are going to be an anchor tenant and invest in our lab, we want the rest of the business district to be vibrant, attractive, and successful. A place where people want to come and where people want to stay.
It’s important to have conversations like these and be coordinated about our plans for the future. Having a national laboratory in your backyard not only benefits the immediate community, but the state and the nation.
That’s a big part of why we are doing these experiments. We’re trying to figure out how best to engage with the community– the internal and external stakeholders for labs.