The labs have been given little incentive to engage with local companies, especially smaller ones, even as technology clusters have grown up near some of them, like Argonne in Chicago, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo., and the four national labs in the San Francisco Bay Area.
“Let’s remember, the history of the labs is not about regional and economic development. It’s about nukes and cleanup,” said Mark Muro, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-author of a 2014 report on the state of technology transfer at the labs.
Some lab leaders say that in the last 18 months or so, a change in tone has taken place at the national labs under Ernest Moniz, who took over from Steven Chu as secretary of Energy in 2013.
One of the most talked-about new ideas at the national labs is a program called Cyclotron Road at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, in the eastern hills above San Francisco Bay.
Much of the work at the national labs is centered on these machines, such as the Advanced Photon Source at Argonne, or the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, down in Silicon Valley, which uses a linear accelerator to examine the nature of subatomic particles.
In addition to Cyclotron Road, the Berkeley lab is one of several national labs participating in a $20 million program to provide vouchers for private companies to get access to the labs‘ brainpower and equipment.
All four of the Bay Area’s national labs – Berkeley, Lawrence Livermore, the Sandia National Laboratories and SLAC – are collectively making their facilities available to 20 to 25 companies in the first year, said Ramamoorthy Ramesh, the Berkeley lab’s director of energy technology.