GAO report underscores challenges of measuring benefits of federal T2

GAO report underscores challenges of measuring benefits of federal T2

February 4, 2021

Tech transfer professionals know that performance measurement is one of the most challenging aspects of T2. A new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) concurs, recommending intensified efforts to measure tech transfer and commercialization outcomes and to align those outcome measures with lab and agency objectives.

The GAO report, which was publicly released on February 1, focused specifically on tech transfer activities within the Department of Energy (DOE), which has concurred with the recommendations. The report's findings, however, may also be relevant for other federal agencies involved in tech transfer.

Researchers at DOE and its 17 national labs regularly make contributions to new energy technologies, such as more efficient batteries for electric vehicles. Technology transfer officials at the labs help these researchers license intellectual property and partner with private-sector companies to bring these technologies to market. However, the GAO said in explaining why the analysis was performed, several recent reports have highlighted barriers and inconsistencies in technology transfer at DOE.

GAO analyzed DOE documents on technology transfer and spoke with officials at DOE and seven national labs, as well as with representatives of universities and private-sector companies. GAO selected labs across a range of DOE activities and based on their technology transfer activities.

The DOE and its national labs have taken several steps to address potential barriers to technology transfer. GAO characterized these barriers as (1) gaps in funding, (2) legal and administrative barriers, and (3) lack of alignment between DOE research and industry needs.

One example is the “valley of death,” a gap between the end of public funding and start of private-sector funding that can slow down the T2 process. The GAO report noted that the DOE partly addresses this gap with its Technology Commercialization Fund, which provides grants of $100,000 to $1.5 million to DOE researchers to advance promising technologies with private-sector partners. Further, DOE's Energy I-Corps program trains researchers to commercialize new technologies and to identify industry needs and potential customers. However, the report continued, the DOE has not assessed how many and which types of researchers would benefit from such training. Without doing so, DOE will not have the information needed to ensure its training resources target the researchers who would benefit most.

DOE plans and tracks the performance of its technology transfer activities by setting strategic goals and objectives and annually collecting department-wide technology transfer measures, such as the number of patented inventions and licenses. However, the report found that the department does not have objective and measurable performance goals to assess progress toward the broader strategic goals and objectives it developed. Moreover, DOE has not aligned the 79 existing measures that it collects with its goals and objectives, nor has it prioritized them. Some lab stakeholders said that collecting and reporting these measures is burdensome. Prior GAO work has found that having a large number of performance measures may risk creating a confusing excess of data that will obscure rather than clarify performance issues.

GAO recommends that DOE assess researchers' needs for commercialization training and develop objective, quantifiable, and measurable performance goals and a limited number of related performance measures for its technology transfer efforts.

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