National Lab Day Raises Question: What’s a National Lab?
April 18 was National Lab Day at the University of Arkansas. Which raises the question: What, exactly, is a National Lab?
The array of 17 National Labs, part of the U.S. Department of Energy, are where the United States seeks answers to the most critical scientific questions of our time. From energy independence, to nuclear safety, to defense, to elemental work in physics, biosciences and computing, big science happens in National Labs.
Los Alamos National Laboratory was the first, and it came into being during World War II for a single purpose: to develop the atomic bomb. After the war, the federal government decided the synergy of research facilities dedicated to important science was a model worth expanding, and the number of National Labs grew.
Today, National Labs have $14 billion in annual funding, and employ 57,000 research scientists and support staff whose work has produced 11,000 peer-reviewed publications and 115 Nobel Prizes. Research done at National Labs has produced the super computer, mapped the human genome, confirmed the Big Bang theory, solved the mystery of what happened to the dinosaurs and created the compact disc, among other things.
Why was National Lab Day held at the University of Arkansas when the closest National Lab, Oak Ridge, is 690 miles away in Tennessee? Because one of the most important things National Labs do is make cutting-edge scientific facilities and support available to researchers from universities and industry. National Labs are used by 30,000 visiting scientists annually, including researchers from the University of Arkansas working on nanomaterials, virtual reality, mass spectrometry, battery research, electric vehicles and much more. Without access to top tier facilities, that kind of work doesn’t happen.