DOE spokesman Robert Middaugh said the agency had no comment on Friedman’s reorganization plan.
In pushing for reform, Friedman stepped beyond the traditional role of inspectors general, who typically focus on the performance of specific programs rather than recommending policy.
He spent 16 years with the DOE’s Inspector General’s office before becoming inspector general himself in 1998. He said the Energy department’s management of its nuclear and energy research programs has changed little since the Manhattan Project of the 1940s, when several labs now run by the agency worked together to produce the first atomic bomb.
Friedman’s most politically sensitive proposal may be that DOE set up a panel like the Department of Defense’s non-partisan, independent Base Closure and Realignment Commission — called BRAC — to study the DOE’s network of national laboratories.
The 16 labs include, among others, the nation’s nuclear weapons centers at Los Alamos National Laboratory, Lawrence Livermore and Sandia. For political leaders, national laboratories are treasured sources of high-skill, highly-paid jobs.
About $3.5 billion of the DOE's roughly $10 billion annual budget for its national laboratories goes to administrative overhead, Friedman said. "In our view, the proportion of scarce science resources diverted to administrative, overhead, and indirect costs for each laboratory may be unsustainable in the current budget environment," he said.
Friedman said that the DOE could save money by eliminating some administrative offices at the agency’s semi-autonomous National Nuclear Security Administration, which manages the nation’s nuclear weapons, naval reactor and nonproliferation programs.
The Energy agency overall spends nearly 90 percent of its nearly $30 billion annual budget on contracts — making it the largest civilian contracting agency in the federal government.
Michael Lubell, a physicist at the City University of New York and spokesman for the American Physical Society, said that the DOE might find ways to save money by consolidating some administrative jobs at national laboratories with similar research programs or those located close to one another.
But simply closing a lab could mean the loss of irreplaceable human capital and infrastructure, he said. In particular, he said, asking highly trained, experienced scientists to relocate would most likely lead to their exodus.
“The fact of the matter is you can move people from one base to another if they’re in the military,” he says. “Scientists are not that way."