Monday, January 24, 2005
Jan. 20, 2005
Trying times for Los Alamos
As a retired Los Alamos Fellow I view with mounting concern the events taking place at the Laboratory. I have always regarded my fellow colleagues (now former colleagues) as the hardest working, most loyal group of people I have ever encountered. Now I discover that the morale among this laudable group has sunk to unprecedented depths, primarily due to inept upper management, which seems to view them with contempt rather than richly deserved respect. The gap between the mood of upper management and the lower ranking employees seems to be widening even as we speak.
Rob Vitek asks for a cure for the low morale. Partial solutions have been proposed, like going back to a 9/80 modified work schedule or not making a motto out of a pretentious phrase. These easy fixes may temporarily ease the symptoms, but the malady remains. I am deeply concerned about the Lab morale. However, considering what Wallace Harbin wrote in these pages, one might conclude that what the Lab really needs is a new direction from upper management, or, failing that, new management altogether.
Unless the current Lab director has been put in charge of the Lab's dissolution, he does not strike me as providing the best leadership in one of the most difficult years in the history of the Lab - the year of the contract bid. The damage to the Lab, should another accident occur at this time, combined with contemptuous knee-jerk reactions, will be catastrophic. Can the Lab afford such a risk? Unfortunately, the only recourse to employees is to beg upper management to remove themselves.
Regarding the motto "The Greatest Science Protecting America," I have two problems. In the first place, "science" is not just about protecting America. It is primarily about using scientific methods to search for the truth about the universe, which then in turn will benefit all of humanity. Second, by referring to oneself as "The Greatest" puts him in danger of becoming a laughing stock for his/her colleagues.
Science is done in small steps, by standing on the shoulders of predecessors. One can judge through the review process which science is better and which is worse, but it is arrogant to refer to any of it as the "World's Greatest Science." Euclid, Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Einstein were great scientists, but none of them called themselves "The Greatest." And even we, with the advantage of hindsight, cannot single out any one of them as the greatest.