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House passes bill to modernize national laboratories

Published: Wednesday, July 23, 2014 10:21 p.m. CDT • Updated: Thursday, July 24, 2014 10:54 a.m. CDT

The U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation July 22 that was introduced last week by U.S. Rep. Randy Hultgren, R-Winfield, and other representatives.

According to a news release from Hultgren’s office, the Department of Energy Laboratory Modernization and Technology Transfer Act of 2014 would bring the United States’ national lab system into the 21st century and promote the easy transfer of federal research into the private sector to bring to the marketplace.

The bill would codify the Agreements for Commercializing Technology, a pilot program aimed at facilitating cooperation between companies and national laboratories to develop new technology.  

There is a significant amount of bureaucracy and legal barriers that get in the way of technology transfer agreements, and this bill tries to streamline the process, according to Hultgren’s office. Private companies that want to utilize a laboratory’s resources cannot deviate from a laboratory’s core mission, according to the office.  

“This bill will ensure that discoveries made in our national labs do not get stuck there. Instead, public-private partnerships can speed scientific research and innovation into the marketplace and help drive our economy forward and create jobs,” Hultgren said in a prepared statement. “As our national labs have been a primary driver of American innovation, we must stay ahead of technological change and new discoveries by pursuing 21st-century policies.”

Not only is the bill, and its sister bill in the Senate, an example of bipartisan and bicameral cooperation, but it also is an example of across-the-aisle think tank collaboration.

The Center for American Progress, the Heritage Foundation and the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation collaborated on reports presented before the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, according to Hultgren’s office.

Robert Kephart, a scientist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia for 35 years, said technology transfer has always been part of the laboratory’s mission. He said technology transfer used to be more indirect and was a result of experiments conducted that directly related to the laboratory’s efforts. He cited superconducting wire technology developed at Fermilab that is now used in MRI scans around the world. Fermilab also had the third Internet site in the world and was at the start of front-end mass data pushing, Kephart said.

To continue innovation and facilitate industrial partnership through technology transfer agreements, Fermilab broke ground in 2011 on the currently unfinished Illinois Accelerator Research Center.

Employees of Fermilab, Argonne and Illinois universities will work together to develop new technology, according to Fermilab’s website.

Kephart said there are approximately 30,000 particle accelerators in use around the world, and the industry in growing at 10 percent a year.

This is, in part, because of the practical application that people do not often realize accelerators have, Kephart said. The technology at Fermilab and at laboratories across the country often play key roles in everything from car parts to cutting-edge cancer treatments.

Both houses of Congress must pass identical bills before the legislation moves to the president’s desk.

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