The Department of Energy's handling of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory's contract once was certain to bring out the cynic in any rational observer.
But with the recent announcement of a pilot program that allows the Richland research lab to continue conducting research for private businesses, it's starting to look as though the federal government can do something right.
The department's initial plan for dealing with this issue was, to put it bluntly, asinine.
That proposal, put forward by the previous administration, was to eliminate the so-called use permit, a provision in Battelle Northwest's contract that allowed the research firm to take on privately funded studies at PNNL.
The principle used to justify the proposal was no more than a fuzzy notion that all national labs ought to operate under the same rules.
Even if DOE could show taxpayers might benefit from a level playing field across the laboratory system -- which is doubtful -- why not reach parity by allowing other labs to duplicate PNNL's highly successful model?
The use permit program was launched nearly 50 years, with the aim of encouraging Battelle to invest its money in the national lab's infrastructure, facilitating the transfer of new technologies to the private sector and diversifying the lab's portfolio.
One all three counts, the program has triumphed.
About 10 percent of PNNL's budget is tied to the use permit, which may not sound significant, but it funds the equivalent of about 400 full-time jobs.
Private businesses that trace their roots to Battelle and PNNL now employ more than 1,100 people in the Mid-Columbia.
And the research firm has invested more than $125 million of its money in facilities and equipment at PNNL.
All in all, it's tough to view the use permit as anything but an unqualified success.
Under pressure from the state's congressional delegation, DOE has seen the light. The new Agreements for Commercializing Technology, or ACT, program announced earlier this month could be used to allow businesses to work in partnership with PNNL and other national laboratories to commercialize new technologies.
Clearly, somewhere along the line, DOE abandoned the idea of pursuing the lowest common denominator in some strange quest for equality and instead developed the ACT program to allow private research to be conducted alongside government research across the laboratory system.
The devil's in the details, and there may be need for significant adjustments once DOE gets a look at how the program works in the field.
But at least the attitude is right -- emulate Battelle's success elsewhere.
U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings appears to be weighing the plan against a healthy dose of skepticism.
"My priority has been ensuring that PNNL and new job creation in the Tri-Cities are not diminished by DOE eliminating the use permit," Hastings said.
"I will be asking questions to ensure this new arrangement equally benefits our world class lab and community," Hastings said.
Good for him. Any changes in the existing contract ought to be for the better or be abandoned.
But at least DOE is headed in the right direction. That's a big step forward from just a few years ago.