Saturday, January 29, 2005

Baffled by the Charge

Doug - here is a piece I submitted to the LA Monitor. They neglected to
print it. If you think it is suitable for your web page, feel free to use
it. Maybe it's a bit on the tame side compared to some of the stuff, but I
think there are some notions here I have not seen articulated elsewhere.

"I believe there is something about the Los Alamos culture that we have
not yet beaten into submission… They exalt science and that's good. But ...
they devalue security."

NNSA Administrator Linton Brooks to Congress, 13 July 2004.
Is there a “culture of arrogance” toward safety and security rules at Los
Alamos? Did a “cowboy culture,” developed and nurtured over six decades,
cause the current controversies? Editorialists all across the country seem
convinced, but it’s worth careful examination.

I believe language is crucial when trying to characterize anything of
importance in human society. The word “culture” is used in my lexicon to
describe characteristics shared by a majority -- not a handful -- of the
members of a population. “Culture of arrogance” implies that something on
the order of 5000 employees of the laboratory are reckless with their own
health and with the future well being of the people of the United States.
That would be quite remarkable indeed. One might ask how these thousands
came to be hired in the first place.

Most of the long-time scientists at the lab that I have asked are baffled
by the charge. They claim that their immediate colleagues, scientists and
technicians, are conscientious, dedicated, careful people who do their best
under sub-optimal circumstances. When asked to point out the “cowboys” in
the system, they come up empty-handed. There doesn’t seem to be any
identifiable individual who consistently breaks the rules. If there were,
they would have been tossed out or isolated by their colleagues a long time

On the other hand, accusations of arrogance at DOE labs are not entirely
wrong. On administrative levels, there is a history of contempt toward
public involvement at DOE sites. Many scientists exaggerate the scientific
value of their own research. At Lawrence Livermore National Lab, arrogance
is polished into a high art form. There is no hesitation to use wild
exaggeration in proposing large, expensive new projects to DOE, and to
insist that no other route will answer the need.

But the notion that arrogance extends to safety and security is a
provocative extrapolation. In national security work, safety and security
are prerequisites for success. Any large experimental effort entails a
tremendous amount of work to sort out the instrumental complexity and the
associated hazards. Coordinating the efforts of a team of scientists and
technicians to produce something meaningful, and assembling and protecting
the resulting classified information, can be a herculean effort that few
organizations can pull off. This describes the culture that has made Los
Alamos deservedly famous. If there is widespread arrogance and disregard
for the rules in this process, how has it gone unnoticed for so long in a
place always under such intense scrutiny? What is the basis for the claim?
I think there might be an alternative explanation for the recent failures
at LANL. Perhaps it’s time to recognize that Los Alamos and its sister labs
are the most complex, interdisciplinary technical organizations known on
the planet. The array of experimental work is mind boggling. The classified
information produced is incredibly varied and voluminous. No industry comes
even close, and no university does it at such a large scale. Safety and
security at LANL are really, really hard to do. Obviously, nobody has
figured it out yet. There is no single system that nullifies the risks for
all experiments simultaneously, at least not for a finite number of

There is no ideal computer system for managing all of the
information because it is so hopelessly distributed. There are thousands of
people in thousands of workplaces, many of them alone or in pairs, and they
are -- regrettably, and unavoidably -- human, and imperfect.
We will continue to reduce the consequences of mistakes, to minimize the
chances for error, and to compensate for the dumb things humans do. We will
employ the best possible technology in the effort. But it will only occur
in an atmosphere that is understanding, forgiving, flexible, and
constructive. Poisonous acrimony, threats, retribution, ridicule,
intimidation: these are tools that would be unwise to use to improve safety
and security at a national lab. Some may argue they work in other contexts,
but at Los Alamos they would only be counterproductive and divisive.

It may not be helpful to point to the mistakes of a handful and presume the whole
community is complicit, as the term “culture of arrogance” does. We should
start to pay attention to the language we use and the tone we adopt, if we
desire to see progress. Otherwise, LANL’s highest obligation -- to produce
something of value for the US taxpayer -- will be forever unmet.

Bernard Foy, concerned scientist.
Bernard Foy
Santa Fe, NM

--When asked to point out the “cowboys” in
the system, they come up empty-handed. There doesn’t seem to be any
identifiable individual who consistently breaks the rules. If there were,
they would have been tossed out or isolated by their colleagues a long time

Incorrect. Coming forward and identifying the cowboys results in political pressure, loss of job, and the vague threats of other such things. Recall the comment about the missing copies of the magazine with the critical comments? I believe the article said that to make further inquiries was ' career limiting '.
Note also that the Monitor has not mentioned the existance of this Blog.
Thank you for your post. I am amazed at how simply and eloquently it expresses my very own feelings. As a non-scientist who works on the facility management side, I agree with you. I see only competent, concern indviduals attempting to complete their work in a safe and secure manner within a very difficult and cumberson bureaucracy.
It is hard to maintain a positive outlook and enthusiasm for one's job when one's benefits and/or compensation are reduced or threatened, and one is tarred and feathered with the group for the attitudes of a few, or the simple human error of a clerk.
Well said.
In case anybody checks down this far, I have some encouraging news to report. I received words of praise for this piece from someone in Public Affairs at Los Alamos. Maybe there is hope after all.

-- Bernard Foy
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