The US Department of Energy's (DOE's) 17 national labs, a $12.5bn network of basic and applied research and development hubs situated in US metropolitan areas, are today underutilised as true economic assets, according to a recent blog by Mark Muro, a senior fellow and director at US think tank Brookings' metropolitan policy programme.

The reason for this, according to Mr Muro, is that a large proportion of the work done in the technology sector is now occurring in the context of synergistic regional clusters of firms, trade associations, educational institutions, private labs and regional economic development organisations.

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A recently released Brookings metropolitan policy programme brief argues that this lack of consistent engagement with regional technology clusters has “likely limited the labs’ overall contributions to US economic growth”. Further, it states that legacy operating procedures limit the DOE labs’ ability to engage fully with the regional economies in which they are located. 

To change this, the brief suggests that the DOE and US Congress improve the labs' value as an economic asset, open them to small and medium-sized businesses, increase their relevance to regional and metropolitan clusters, and provide greater flexibility in oversight and funding.

US president Barack Obama, former DOE secretary Steven Chu and DOE secretary Ernest Moniz already support this new direction. They favour greater technology transfer and want to position the labs to become critical drivers of US innovation-based growth.

While the transformation of the DOE labs would not be easy, Mr Muro emphasised that significant enthusiasm already exists for greater regional engagement, not just at the top of DOE, but among the system’s lab directors. “The moment, in short, appears promising,” he said. “The time is right for a world-class set of innovation institutions to embrace the new economics of geography and participate more fully in the innovation systems of their home regions.”