Federal Research: Information on DOE's Laboratory-Directed Research and Development Program

GAO-16-486R Published: Apr 08, 2016. Publicly Released: Apr 08, 2016.
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What GAO Found

For fiscal year 2015, the National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA) authorized Laboratory-Directed Research and Development (LDRD) funding limit, expressed as a percentage, was the same as the LDRD funding limit for other Department of Energy (DOE) laboratories. Specifically, DOE’s LDRD policy directs NNSA and other DOE laboratories to comply with statutory limits—for fiscal year 2015, generally 6 percent funds provided by DOE to the laboratory. In contrast, the funding limit was higher than the funding limits for the two comparable Department of Defense (DOD) research programs GAO reviewed—the funding for research and development (R&D) programs authorized under Section 219 of the Duncan Hunter National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2009, as amended (Section 219), and the In-House Laboratory Independent Research (ILIR) programs. These two comparable DOD research programs had funding limits of 3 percent of laboratory funding, for the Section 219 program, and 2.5 percent of the total basic research budgets for DOD’s services, for the ILIR program.

GAO’s analysis shows that NNSA’s three laboratories employed a total of 28,143 personnel during fiscal year 2015. Of these, 

  • 4,556 (16.2 percent of the total) were supported by funding under the LDRD program for some amount of time—that is, an hour or more; 
  • 1,015 (3.6 percent of the total) were supported by funding under the LDRD program for a majority of their time—that is, 50 percent or more; and
  • 167 (0.6 percent of the total) also were supported by funding under the LDRD for a majority of their time in fiscal years 2012 through 2014.

Why GAO Did This Study

DOE’s contractor-operated laboratories perform mission-related research and development (R&D) for DOE, other federal agencies, and nonfederal organizations. In fiscal year 2015, these laboratories spent more than $13 billion on R&D and related operating expenses that supported DOE’s national nuclear security, energy resources, environmental management, and science programs. In addition to this work, DOE’s laboratories, including its three NNSA laboratories, perform LDRD work, under which directors of contractor-operated laboratories may allocate funding to scientists to conduct worthy independent research. The laboratories fund their LDRD programs by including a charge, up to statutory limits, in their indirect cost of doing R&D work for DOE, other federal agencies, and nonfederal organizations. Total funding for LDRD programs at the DOE laboratories was $542 million in fiscal year 2015—about 4.2 percent of the laboratories’ total operating and capital equipment budgets.

The Joint Explanatory Statement of the Committee of Conference accompanying the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2016 included a provision for GAO to assess the NNSA LDRD program’s funding limits and personnel levels. GAO was asked to review (1) funding limits on NNSA’s LDRD program compared to limits on similar programs at other DOE and DOD laboratories and (2) the number of personnel supported by LDRD funding at NNSA laboratories, including the number supported by LDRD for the majority of their time.

GAO reviewed LDRD funding limits, including recent legislative changes affecting the LDRD program, the DOE order governing the program, DOE’s LDRD report to Congress for fiscal year 2015, and the three NNSA laboratories’ LDRD plans for fiscal year 2015. GAO also reviewed the law authorizing the Section 219 program, the DOD instruction governing the ILIR program, and DOD annual reports on the Section 219 and ILIR programs. In addition, GAO interviewed DOE, DOD, and laboratory officials to determine how the laboratories applied the funding limits.

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