DOE’s Investments in Research and Development

Department of EnergyThe Department of Energy invested $7.36 billion in thousands of civilian research and development projects in 2015—supporting R&D in areas such as energy efficiency, renewable energy, and the electricity grid.

With this funding, researchers at national laboratories, universities, and private companies have discovered ways to better predict hurricane-caused storm surges, used bacteria to enhance biofuels production, and found ways to ensure a continued supply of energy in cities during power outages.

Today’s Watchblog explores how DOE oversees these civilian R&D projects.

6 offices overseeing billions of dollars

DOE distributed its 2015 civilian R&D funding through five program offices within the Department, and through the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy—a separate DOE agency. These six offices don’t just award civilian R&D funds; they also oversee how these funds are spent by national laboratories, universities, industry, nonprofit organizations, state governments, and other federal laboratories.

Figure 2: DOE National Laboratories That Primarily Conduct Civilian R&D

(Excerpted from GAO-17-261)

The three program offices we selected for detailed reviews—the offices of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, Nuclear Energy, and Science—oversee nearly 90 percent of DOE’s civilian R&D investments. Although each office has a different focus, they all undertake similar oversight activities.

  • Identifying research priorities—such as technology barriers, knowledge gaps, and infrastructure needs—and helping determine where DOE should invest. For example, the Office of Nuclear Energy sponsored workshops in 2015 that sought to identify ideas for advancing nuclear energy technologies.
  • Ensuring that DOE’s national labs conduct their work in line with the agency’s priorities, and that contractors manage this research safely and efficiently. Among other activities, each program office requires contractors that operate a national laboratory to develop a long-term strategic plan for their lab, and monitors project performance through periodic reviews and site visits, or regular meetings or calls with lab management and project staff.
  • Ensuring that universities and private industry meet the research goals defined in their grants and cooperative agreements. Program offices conduct merit reviews on new proposals from universities and industry, and monitor thousands of ongoing projects through various activities—tailoring the level of oversight based on the size and complexity of the project.

Growing investments, shrinking staff

science and technologyAlthough DOE’s investments in civilian R&D projects have grown in recent years, it has had fewer staff to oversee them. In 2015, the agency obligated 3.8 percent more for these projects than it did in 2011, but its oversight staff decreased by 11 percent.

Some reasons for this decrease included the completion of projects supported with funds provided by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (which had funded additional staff), budgetary pressures, and unfilled vacant positions.

To learn more about DOE’s oversight of its energy research and development projects, check out our full report.


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