The U.S. National Laboratory System

At the conclusion of World War II, the nation’s scientific enterprise was vital in bringing about the Atomic Age. Countless new technologies like Radar, Nuclear Power, Advanced Medicine, and other technologies, have helped the U.S. in winning the war. However, with these successes, the key question became what would become of the federal laboratories, whose efforts helped shape the course of the war? The genius of one man, Dr. Vannevar Bush, helped the United States transition from a scientific war machine to a federal enterprise poised to advance the fields of science into the 20th century. However, how did Dr. Bush accomplish this feat? What was the result of his actions? Let us take a journey into the history of the federal research enterprise.

The history of the federal research system traces its roots back to World War II where a young scientist, Dr. Vannevar Bush, spoke to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt about merging scientists to military research. President Roosevelt agreed with Bush and thus the National Defense Research Council (NDRC) was created, with Dr. Bush as the Director. The NDRC was tasked to coordinate, supervise, and conduct scientific research on the problems underlying the development, production, and use of mechanisms and devices of warfare. The NDRC focused on scientific projects like radar, anti-submarine tactics, and most importantly, the nuclear program. However, since the NDRC needed more resources, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8807 creating the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD). President Roosevelt immediately appointed Dr. Bush as Director of OSRD.

Dr. Bush then set out to employ the top scientific minds into the OSRD to support scientific research and to provide the military with the means to win the war. The organization provided new weapons, devices, and technology that quickly modernized allied forces in the two theaters. In 1947, the OSRD was disbanded and the various components transferred to the military.

National Science Foundation

Dr. Bush, seeking to build a post-war federal research enterprise implored legislators to create an agency that would make this dream a reality. In 1950, Congress answered this call by passing into law, the National Science Foundation Act. The National Science Foundation (NSF) Act created the National Science Board and a Director for the agency. The NSF was charged with conducting basic research in several fields of science, direct research related to national security, and to provide scholarships/fellowships for aspiring scientists. The NSF provided aspiring scientists the change to undertake scientific study and provided grants to allow scientists to pursue their passions in their respective fields.

Department of Energy 

The Department of Energy was the successor of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). Created after World War II, the AEC was tasked with managing the nation’s nuclear weapons program during the Cold War. With the passage of the 1954 Atomic Energy Act, the federal government allowed the privatization of nuclear energy for commercial applications in nuclear power. The AEC played a regulatory role in managing this new industry and continued to do so up until the 1973 oil crisis. During this time, members of Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC) imposed an oil embargo on the United States. Due to the nation’s high demand on foreign oil, this resulted in an energy crisis that prompted immediate action for domestic technologies here at home. As a result, the 1977 Department of Energy Organizing Act created the Department of Energy (DoE). The creation of the DoE brought all functions of national energy technology under one encompassing department that managed a portfolio of high-risk research and development energy technology, federal power marketing, energy conservation, the nation’s nuclear weapons program, energy regulatory programs, and a central data energy analysis program.

Since the Department of Energy encompasses so many laboratories, I thought it would be good to show a view of the location of all DoE laboratories in the United States.

Department of Energy
Map locations of Department of Energy laboratories in the United States.

Below are links to each of the DoE laboratories:

Office of Science Laboratory

  1. Ames Laboratory, Ames, Iowa
  2. Argonne National Laboratory, Argonne, Illinois
  3. Brookhaven National Laboratory, Upton, New York
  4. Fermi National Laboratory, Batavia, Illinois
  5. Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory, Berkeley, California
  6. Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Oak Ridge, Tennessee
  7. Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Richland, Washington
  8. Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, Princeton, New Jersey
  9. SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, Menlo Park, California
  10. Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility, Newport News, Virginia

National Nuclear Security Administration

  1. Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Livermore, California
  2. Los Alamos National Laboratory, Los Alamos, New Mexico
  3. Sandia National Laboratory, Livermore, California

Other DoE Labs

  1. Idaho National Laboratory, Idaho Falls, Idaho
  2. National Energy Technology Laboratory, Morgantown, West Virginia, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Albany, Oregon
  3. National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Golden, Colorado
  4. Savannah River National Laboratory, Aiken, South Carolina

National Institute of Standards and Technology

One of the least well-known scientific agencies is the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). NIST was originally called the National Bureau of Standards. The current mission of NIST is to standardize measurements, weights, timekeeping, and navigation. Today, NIST plays a crucial role in allowing scientists to produce improve products, services, and technologies that can be applied to future needs. Such examples include devices such as atomic clocks, cell phones, and mammograms.

National Institute of Health

The National Institute of Health (NIH), is the nucleus of biological research for the U.S. government. Created in 1940, the NIH primary focus is to discover new breakthroughs in biological sciences to prevent, and treat, human health. In addition to biological research, the NIH also provides grants to researchers in academia to expand our knowledge in the field.

Below are the list of NIH laboratories in the United States:

  1. NIH Main Campus, Bethesda, Maryland
  2. Research Triangle Park, North Carolina
  3. Bayview Campus, Baltimore, Maryland
  4. Frederick National Laboratory for Cancer Research, Frederick, Maryland
  5. Rocky Mountain Laboratories, Hamilton, Montana
  6. Phoenix Epidemiology and Clinical Research Branch, Phoenix, Arizona

Future of the Science Laboratory System

What does the future hold for the American Federal Research system? With the recent increase in science funding, agencies like NASA, NIH, and the NSF have been expected to see budget levels remain the same, or increase, with the 2018-2019 budget. However, agencies like NIST, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), U.S. Geological Survey, and the Environmental Protection Agency are expected to receive crippling cuts. While these changes are beneficial to some, they are crippling to others. If the United States hopes to continue to be a leader in federal science research, federal lawmakers will need to increase funding to all scientific agencies.

To conclude, I believe that the future to our nation’s success stems from our federal research enterprise. We are strongest when we invest in institutions that generate new knowledge, industries that design new technologies, and invest in future scientists. The future looks bright and I look forward to being a part of this enterprise.

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