Return on Investment

Return on Investment
October 5, 2015

A little less than two years ago, in November 2013, we wrote a Montage entitled “LDRD, investing in ourselves”. This was, as we described, our plan for initiating an LDRD program after several years of contemplation and investigation, followed by a proposal, and approval from the Department of Energy.

On Friday, October 2, 2015, we held a modest event in the atrium, a poster session featuring the results of the first two years of the Jefferson Lab LDRD program representing the completion of five projects started during the first two years of the program. The advances over the course of those two years have been quite remarkable.

In discussing an LDRD program back in 2013, we were a little unsure of ourselves. Historically, LDRD programs had been established in the large multi-purpose laboratories. In the large weapons labs, for example, there are constraints on the newly recruited scientist. As I understand it, until they receive clearance they are unable to do classified work, on the other hand the lab funding is typically to do that classified work. One solution is to recruit the scientist using Laboratory Directed Research and Development (LDRD) funds. The opportunity for the laboratory scientists to work on these interesting R&D projects can also act as a strong factor in recruiting. Thus laboratories such as Los Alamos have long had a very strong LDRD program, funded at the level of several percent.

The multi-purpose labs can also use LDRD funds to study a potential new strategic initiative. For example, a prominent LDRD program at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory a decade ago was the SNAP initiative to explore dark energy using space based observatory. SNAP was for some time a leading project in the competition for selection by the Joint Dark Energy Mission, which was a putative collaboration between DOE and NASA.

Finally, LDRD funds can be used for blue sky, high risk but potentially high return, R&D projects, outside the normal mission of a laboratory. This is our primary motivation for LDRD here; we feel that it allows opportunities beyond the daily routine, and has important impact on scientific and engineering staff morale. Sometimes the strategically directed LDRD may be accorded an earmarked fraction of the annual funding, and not need to compete with the blue-sky initiatives; so far we have not used this mechanism but the proposals received seem rather naturally to have had a strong representation from projects which enhance our strategic development of an electron ion collider design.

In comparison with other laboratories, the Jefferson Lab program is modest. The NNSA labs support programs that have used 6% or more of their laboratory funding. Congress imposed a cap, but the Commission to Review the Effectiveness of the National Energy Laboratories (CRENEL) has a recommendation in its draft final report that supports a 6% cap EXCLUDING overhead costs. Ours is less than 1% and the motivation behind ours is different. Nevertheless, on their visit to Jefferson Lab, the CRENEL members were surprised at how modest was our program. We have the additional wrinkle that the funding for the laboratory is dominated by funding from a single office, Nuclear Physics, in the DOE Office of Science.

In the planning stages, a 1% tax on the lab programs seems to be modest and acceptable. Nevertheless, on the day one commits, the decision is usually taken in the context of some recent budget problems, which accentuates the apparent impact. It takes discipline to retain the long view. We recognized early on that, if we were to have a sustainable program, we could not fund at the eventual steady state level in the first year. But now, we believe that we can see how on a year-on-year basis we can manage to a constant level. Currently, we foresee stabilizing at about $800K per year before looking at further expansion.

We use a fairly rigorous selection procedure, which is dominated by scientific merit and achievability. We involve division management so to ensure that the lien on the required resources is acceptable. After the initial discussions, Larry Cardman has taken responsibility for the program and organized it in meticulous fashion. He also attends complex-wide meetings to discuss with other lab organizers how they are setting up their programs. The process from letter of intent to review and recommendation of proposals takes several months, but there is a flurry at the end since approval for the upcoming year, from DOE, is constrained to be after the start of the financial year. In fact, the DOE site office is a strong and supportive player in this whole process. Further, when Larry informed DOE-Office of Nuclear Physics about the plan for FY2016, he received a glowing note of praise for the way our program is managed from Tim Hallman.

In the first year, we funded three projects out of eighteen proposals. Programs that go beyond a single year need to compete for their second year of funding with incoming new proposals. We then also funded three new projects in the second year. We sent you a letter providing an update, the proposals that are completing, those continuing, and two proposals newly approved for funding in FY2016.

I am pleased to say that, all in all, the program and the results obtained represent a very substantial return on our investment in ourselves.