The U.S. Department of Energy’s national labs have made huge contributions to research and development, but they could have a much greater impact on regional economies if the research facilities were opened to work with small- and medium-sized businesses, according to a new report by Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program and the Information Technology Innovation Foundation.

A Congressional commission will meet Monday to consider the DOE labs’ effectiveness.

The Brookings/ITIF report says the labs’ operating approach -- frequently isolated and “behind the fence” -- probably limits the facilities’ contributions to local innovation and growth.

In order to increase their impact, the national labs should work more with local industry clusters.

The report recommends Congress create a National Laboratories Innovation Voucher Program. This would allow DOE and the labs to establish a low-dollar research voucher to allow small and medium-sized enterprises to purchase “research hours” from labs for consulting services. The report also recommends policy changes to provide greater flexibility in oversight and funding for the labs.