Laboratory Directed Research and Development: The Department of Energy’s Engine of Discovery
The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is charged with a large and complex mission: to ensure America’s security and prosperity by addressing its energy, environmental, and nuclear challenges through transformative science and technology solutions. The DOE executes this mission to a large extent at its 17 national laboratories, a group of institutions which were created and are supported by the federal government to perform research and development (R&D) in areas of importance to the DOE and, where appropriate, other federal agencies.
Today, the national laboratories are performing R&D in support of DOE’s goals in catalyzing the transformation of the nation’s energy system, securing our leadership in clean energy, maintaining a vibrant scientific and engineering effort, and enhancing nuclear security through defense, nonproliferation, and environmental efforts. In recognition of the importance of the long-term health of these institutions, the U.S. Congress has authorized and encouraged them to devote a relatively small portion of their research effort to creative and innovative work that serves to maintain their vitality in science and technology (S&T) disciplines relevant to DOE and national security missions. Since 1991, this effort has formally been called Laboratory Directed Research and Development (LDRD).
LDRD serves a number of important purposes. It enables high-risk R&D at the DOE’s laboratories in areas of potential value to national R&D programs. Its flexibility allows the laboratories to assemble experts from different fields into teams whose collaboration uncovers synergies and multidisciplinary solutions not otherwise evident without the freedom to reach across traditional technical boundaries. In addition, LDRD serves as a proving ground for advanced R&D concepts that are often subsequently pursued by DOE programs and, at the same time, helps the Government identify more creative approaches to fulfilling future mission needs.
LDRD projects are selected on a competitive basis through rigorous management and peer review processes, thus ensuring the best and most promising ideas are brought to the fore. As a result, LDRD contributes to an environment at the laboratories that encourages and supports creativity and is poised to respond immediately to DOE mission challenges as they arise. In that way, LDRD helps the laboratories maintain and develop scientific and engineering capabilities in areas of strategic importance to the nation.
Among the most valuable aspects of the LDRD program is its role as an excellent professional development tool. The LDRD program, over time, has proven itself to be instrumental in the laboratories’ ability to attract promising young scientists and engineers, thus providing the basis for continually revitalizing the laboratory research staff, as well as for the education and training of the next generation of scientists. This includes support for both undergraduate and graduate students working on LDRD projects, technical staff retention associated with opportunities to retain and hone scientific skills via LDRD, and a range of university collaborations stimulated via LDRD projects.
Over the years, concepts resulting from LDRD have led to widespread recognition as demonstrated through an impressive array of awards received, and a substantial record of publications in prestigious journals and patented inventions associated with the program. LDRD has often resulted in a new technology-based option to address a problem, e.g., a new scientific instrument or tool. These technology developments, in turn, can influence DOE’s planning for next generation scientific user facilities which, when operational, serve the DOE’s needs as well as the needs of the wider scientific community. DOE’s mission has been and will continue to be dynamic and, likewise, the LDRD program has been and will continue to be a key component of DOE’s ability to deliver its vital mission today and in the future.