The Reagan administration plans to curtail research on alternative energy sources and expand efforts to develop new weapons at several of the nation's federal laboratories, the White House science office said yesterday.
The move is part of the administration's effort to redefine the role of the labs, which command an annual budget exceeding $15 billion, to make them more responsive to national needs and more in tune with administration priorities, according to Dr. James G. Ling, executive director of the president's Office of Science and Technology Policy.
In a year-long study of the problems and potential of the government's research facilities, a presidential panel found that many of the 755 federal labs suffer "serious deficiencies" that compromise the quality of their research and their cost-effectiveness. The panel yesterday recommended greatly expanding access to the labs by private industry, universities and the military.
The panel was chaired by David Packard of the Hewlett-Packard Co., and included Dr. Edward Teller, an outspoken advocate of stepped-up nuclear weapons development, Dr. Albert Wheelon of the Hughes Aircraft Co. and physicists from Yale University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Illinois.
Although the panel did not recommend closing specific labs, the report said that funding at individual facilities should be allowed to increase or decrease, "to zero if necessary," to meet national needs best.
"This isn't a budget-cutting exercise, it's an effort to get a better return on our investment," Ling said. He said many of the labs had had management problems and an uncertain sense of mission as successive administrations set new research priorities.
For example, Ling said, some of the labs traditionally associated with weapons work, which began doing alternative energy research during the Carter administration, would be steered back to their original mission.
The panel's report concentrated on laboratories operated by the six federal agencies with the most research funding: the departments of Defense, Commerce, Agriculture, Energy and Health and Human Services and NASA.
Among other things, the panel recommended:
* Relaxing federal procurement requirements to encourage more cooperation with private industry.
* Legislative changes to free the labs from the constraints of the Civil Service system. The panel found that almost all of the labs, both government-operated and contractor-operated, "suffer serious disadvantages in their inabilities to attract, retain and motivate scientific and technical personnel" because of the Civil Service system.
* Multiyear funding so that programs and staffing for the labs can be properly planned.
* External oversight by a committee on which industry and university interests would be well-represented.
* Appointing facility directors for finite lengths of time and holding them "accountable for the quality, relevance and productivity of the laboratory."