Can the U.S. government fix its top nuclear weapons lab?

nuclear.jpg Credit: Thomas Reekie

From the OCT/NOV 2005 issue of Seed:

The University of California has managed Los Alamos National Laboratory—crown jewel of the American science establishment, one of the best places in the world to conduct research—since its development during the Manhattan Project. In December, the Department of Energy, which oversees all of U.S. national laboratories, will toss the keys to a new manager. Media attention is trained on a race between two primary bidders, both corporate partnerships, one headed by Lockheed and the other by the University of California. But the end goal of this “recompete”—greater accountability and security at Los Alamos—is likely to mean closer supervision by the DOE and, in turn, the U.S. Congress. Which raises the bigger question: Is the government the best manager of leading-edge science?

“You know, it used to be, the idea behind using contractors to manage the National Laboratories was you create a place where science could dominate,” said Gordon Kingsley, a policy analyst at Georgia Tech who studied the contract competition at Sandia National Laboratory in 1992. “That’s why Bell Labs was a natural fit, the University of California system was a natural fit. Now, that’s really not the dominant thinking.”

Scandals have blemished Los Alamos since 1999, when Operation Kindred Spirit, a federal nuclear-espionage investigation fingered Wen Ho Lee, a computer scientist at Los Alamos, as a spy. The charges were finally revealed to be specious, but in subsequent years, news of spending fraud and theft in the millions of dollars, along with racial profiling, security breaches, mismanagement, possible cover-ups, environmental hazards and safety mishaps served to make the lab more of a source of national embarrassment than pride.

The Department of Energy and Congress have decided to protect their own interests by putting the lab up for bid. The decision has allowed the DOE to distance itself from the UC’s management failures, and has provided an opportunity for the DOE to rewrite the terms of its relationship with the laboratories, thereby gaining greater oversight.

“The fear of the federal government in the 1940s and ‘50s was that they didn’t have an internal capacity for managing this type of research-based workforce,” says Kingsley. “[Since then], the federal government has developed much greater sophistication and is certainly a lot more comfortable as a consumer of science and of high technology. Because their confidence level has increased, and also because we’re in an era where accountability is such a high-valued issue, what you end up with is the Department of Energy being very interested in the specific performance of individual labs.”

What worries some people is that rather than improving conditions, this greater control will restrict pure scientific research, the hallmark of Los Alamos culture. “The DOE is a rather large, bureaucratic, complicated organization,” says Neal Lane, who was the chief science advisor in the Clinton administration. “That contract cannot be such that the DOE is perceived as somehow managing—or worse, micromanaging—the activities at the laboratories.”

Paul Robinson, head of Sandia National Laboratory—and would-be director of Los Alamos, should the Lockheed-University of Texas partnership win its bid—disagreed vehemently with the idea that the contract competition would alter the lab’s priorities.

“I have seen no evidence that DOE is trying to ‘put their own tighter reigns’ on the Los Alamos lab,” he said. “Since they do pay a contractor to manage the lab and are not getting that function performed, they are putting it out for bid. I see no rationale to conclude that the recompete will change the relationship between the DOE and the lab.”

Politicians have always, in whole or in part, set the research agenda at the National Laboratories. But in an age when the very conduct of science is becoming politicized—from school boards to the White House to the G8—the concern is that increased accountability to the government from the lab bench may not always be good for science.

“Let me be quick to say I’m sure DOE wants to improve the management of the laboratory. They want the laboratory to do a good job,” said Lane. “But it has lots of constraints, many of them from the Congress. It can’t just do what it thinks best. At least I’ve never seen DOE able to do that through the years. So just wanting to do the right thing—and even knowing what the right thing to do is—does not necessarily lead to the right result.”

Originally published October 22, 2005

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