Frequently Asked Questions

The U.S. Department of Energy/National Nuclear Security Administration frequently fields questions about the nature of the Laboratory Directed Research and Development program and its role in DOE’s and the laboratories’ efforts to achieve the goals of governmental missions. The following provides answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about the program.

What is Laboratory Directed Research and Development (LDRD)?

LDRD is research and development (R&D) work of a creative and innovative nature that is selected by the director of a national laboratory for the purpose of building new capabilities, identifying and developing potential applications, and formulating new theories, hypotheses, and approaches that advance the DOE’s missions. In so doing, LDRD both opens new avenues for the Department’s programs and contributes to maintaining the vitality of the laboratories in R&D areas important to the DOE/NNSA.

What is the statutory basis for the LDRD program?

The Atomic Energy Act (AEA) of 1954, as amended (42 U.S.C. 2011 et seq., in Section 31), directs the DOE/NNSA to ensure the continued conduct of R&D and to assist in the acquisition of an ever-expanding body of theoretical and practical knowledge in the fields of energy, its production, uses, handling, and effects. The AEA was followed, in 1977, with Congressional authorization in the Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA) Appropriations Act that any laboratory under contract with ERDA could, with the Administrator’s approval, “use a reasonable amount of its operating budget for the funding of employee-suggested research projects” in scientific and technological (S&T) areas deemed critical by the government. ERDA and now the DOE/NNSA laboratory contractors have carried out these activities under programs with various names (e.g., exploratory studies, discretionary R&D, seed money, program development research, and exploratory R&D). Since 1991, the program has formally been called LDRD.

Why have Laboratory Directed Research and Development?

LDRD provides the laboratories with the means to explore new research concepts not yet well-enough developed to be adopted by government programs and thus to be in a better position to support current and future DOE/NNSA and other national missions. LDRD research projects are uniquely able to bridge disciplinary boundaries to find synergistic solutions to science and technology challenges and build new capabilities that can support multiple interests. Over the years, LDRD projects have contributed to and often been the initial motivation for major S&T advances. These have been widely reported in the scientific community, as evidenced by a superior record of publications as well as awards received and intellectual property developed as a result of LDRD support. In addition, LDRD has provided the laboratories with the opportunity to acquire and build foundational tools necessary to ensure their long-term vitality at the leading edge of technical fields relevant to their missions.

Which laboratories have LDRD programs?

Sixteen of the DOE/NNSA laboratories currently have LDRD programs. They are: Ames National Laboratory, Argonne National Laboratory, Brookhaven National Laboratory, Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, Idaho National Laboratory, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Los Alamos National Laboratory, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, Sandia National Laboratories, Savannah River National Laboratory, SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, and the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility.

How large is the LDRD program?

By statute, a laboratory’s maximum allowable LDRD funding level is 6% of its annual operating/capital equipment budget. The amount spent on LDRD in FY 2013 was $568.6 million.

How is LDRD funded?

LDRD is accumulated as part of the overhead rate charged by a laboratory to each of its DOE and non-DOE sponsors funding work at the laboratory. Since LDRD is a critical component of keeping the laboratories at the forefront of research in their fields, thus benefiting all programs doing work at a laboratory, it is considered a normal cost of doing business. Being part of a laboratory's ongoing indirect budget—that is, all sponsors of work at a laboratory are paying for it—reflects it universal benefit to all who rely on a laboratory’s capabilities.

How do the laboratories run their LDRD programs?

Within the limits set by statute and Departmental policy, individual laboratory directors determine how they will manage their LDRD programs. However, several key aspects of the individual laboratories’ LDRD programs are similar: 1) most LDRD funding procedures are uniform because the laboratories use standardized accounting practices and mechanisms to manage their indirect budgets; 2) the laboratories’ portfolios of LDRD projects comprise work within the same array of S&T disciplines -- areas that contribute to maintaining and enhancing those specific laboratory capabilities that are aligned with current and future DOE missions; and 3) because there are many more good R&D ideas than there are funds to support them, and because it is a longstanding tradition within the research community to employ internal peer and/or technical management review processes to make such difficult choices, laboratory directors typically use the results of competitive, peer-reviewed proposal processes to select the portfolio of LDRD projects that will receive funding in a given year. Technical merit and relevance to the DOE missions are primary criteria in the LDRD selection processes.

How does DOE oversee the LDRD program?

DOE’s LDRD policy, codified in DOE Order 413.2B, Laboratory Directed Research and Development, defines a multi-pronged approach to Federal oversight of the LDRD program. DOE/NNSA headquarters offices, for example, are responsible for approving the laboratories’ annual LDRD program plans and associated maximum LDRD funding levels based on each laboratory’s request and a recommendation from the responsible cognizant Federal site office. In turn, the site offices are responsible for monitoring the laboratory contractors’ compliance with DOE policies and procedures, including those applicable to LDRD. They also are responsible for concurring on each LDRD project proposed for funding prior to the start of work to ensure the project is consistent with the DOE policy requirements (e.g., relevant to one or more DOE/NNSA missions).