Federal Labs aid civilian economy
by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Rocky Mountain News, June 13, 1991
Albuquerque- Across the U.S. are more than 500 federal laboratories operated by 14 different federal agencies.
Many of the best known labs are weapons labs — such as New Mexico’s Los Alamos National Laboratory, where the atomic bomb was invented, as depicted in the movie Fat Man and Little Boy.
But in the post-cold war era, these labs are increasingly using their scientific and engineering talent to address concerns of the civilian economy, including new battery storage technology and solar energy, environmental restoration, transportation safety and waste management.
Access to the substantial talent and the know-how of the laboratories — what the specialists call “technology transfer” — is promoted by the Federal Laboratory Consortium, based in Sequim, Wash. The FLC was organized in 1974 and formally chartered by the the Federal Technology Transfer Act of 1986.
The FLC provides a link between the laboratories and potential users of government produced technology, especially U.S. businesses and state and local governments.
Los Alamos, for example, already has made major contributions to laser technologies with many civilian applications, such as the bar codes used by grocery stores to ring up the price of a bag of groceries.
Sandia National Laboratories, a weapons lab in Albuquerque, has 8,000 employees and contributes more than $1 billion to the local economy. Sandia has major new initiatives in advanced manufacturing technology, waste management and promotion of technology transfer.
Some national labs are government-owned and government-operated–caled GOGO’s. Most Air Force and Navy labs, for example, are GOGO’s. So are most U.S. Department of Agriculture labs.
Others, government-owned but contractor-operated, are called GOCO’s. While the U.S. Department of Energy owns the assets of Sandia and Los Alamos, Sandia is a subsidiary of a private corporation, AT&T, and Los Alamos is operated by the University of California.
Although funding for the weapons programs at places like Sandia and Los Alamos is declining, these labs retain important national security responsibilities — including new intelligence and verification technologies.
However, for many labs the future is the civilian economy. For example, the U.S. Agricultural Research Service recently developed a no-calorie, high-fiber flour.
Another lab is seeking substitutes for commonly used chlorofluorocarbons, which are very damaging to Earth’s ozone layer.
Because of the need to deal with the continued threat of nuclear weapons, the future of the weapons labs-many of which are located in the West–is assured.
However, the growth of the labs will depend on their ability to diversify into new area of research and development. They must also demonstrate their ability to transfer more technology to the civilian sector. Otherwise, the labs risk losing public support.