Friday, February 11, 2005

Former LANL official critical of lab director

Former LANL official critical of lab director


ROGER SNODGRASS, roger@lamonitor.com, Monitor Assistant Editor

The former associate laboratory director for Strategic Research, who said he was forced to resign during the safety and security crisis last July, has publicly reproached Los Alamos National Laboratory Director G. Peter Nanos for mismanagement and failure of leadership.

"In a relatively short period of time, a series of critical management mistakes have started to undo what it took 60 years to build," said Thomas J. Meyer during a return visit to Los Alamos Wednesday. "When you look back, the lab shutdown was a cover up for mismanagement at the top."

Meyer has written an eight-page essay, "What Happened at Los Alamos," (available on an Internet weblog at http://lanl-the-real-story.blogspot.com), giving his account of the circumstances surrounding the total suspension of operations at the lab on July 12 and the implications of that decision for the lab's future.

Meyer was the highest ranking laboratory employee disciplined by laboratory management, which made a point at the time that it was meting out punishment high and low, without regard to position. Four others lost their jobs at that time.

Because of his responsibilities in charge of a major directorate at the lab and as a member of the senior executive team, Meyer wrote, he could see what was happening at the highest level.

"I have a perspective on the shutdown that I feel obligated to share with the larger Los Alamos community," he said.

What he saw as the problem was not the "negative culture" within the LANL scientific community, which was publicly rebuked and subjected to a kind of collective punishment and humiliation.

The laboratory's decision to idle 12,000 employees for more than seven months, in some cases, was not justified, according to Meyer, who said there was an alternative.

"At other laboratories, staged stand downs are commonly used to focus on areas where there is known concern," Meyer wrote. "This allows limited resources to be brought to bear quickly and effectively on problem areas with the work force sensitized, best practices instilled, and training provided."

Meyer defended the safety record of thechemistry division, which was his responsibility before the laser accident, noting that management had not supported an effort to hire an Operation Deputy for the Division, whose job would have been to oversee the day-to-day operations and safety.

Meyer said Nanos whipsawed the overhead charged to customers last year, driving prices to uncompetitive levels at first, and then reducing them in the middle of the year, creating havoc for many support organizations and new projects, including a day-to-day safety officer for the chemistry division.

Among other accusations:

  • The University of California has expressed concern that there is inadequate representation for science in the current senior management team.

  • Important scientists are gone or leaving the laboratory.

  • Important programs have been lost to other laboratories; others are threatened.

  • Current recruiting for postdocs is at an all-time low.

    Meyer said his departure from the laboratory was handled crudely.

    "I never spoke to Nanos, never got anything in writing. There was nothing, zero," Meyer said. "No exit interview. No pretense of dealing with this in a sophisticated way."

    Meyer said he will be returning to UNC-Chapel Hill as the Arey Professor of Chemistry. He was on the faculty there for many years before coming to LANL.

    Despite the bleak evaluation of the situation, Meyer saw a potential rebirth in the lab's future.

    "LANL is a sleeping giant, waiting to reassert itself," he concluded his critique. "A path forward must be found quickly to provide leadership and a clear vision for the future."

    LANL public affairs did not responded to a request for information by today's publication deadline.

  • Comments:
    It really does appears that Nanos is making sure everyone around him is as unqualified as he is to be Director as a way to try to keep his job...
     
    Where are we now? Most everyone here is anonymous except for the retirees and the soon to depart. Why can’t more people be honest while naming themselves? I suppose I sound like Chris Mechel, just like lots of others who write here without identifying themselves. It’s obvious that many things are wrong with LANL and it’s also natural that many people would like to speak the truth occasionally.
    LANL’s problems are easy to identify. Secrecy is one of them. It’s a pleasure to be able to fail repeatedly and never be forced to admit it. Programs like ANTARES paid some fine salaries. So did NPB, and the crazy accelerator transmutation programs. It might interrupt one's income if you spoke up. Senator Dominici is another problem. I’m sure that he did not want to create a laboratory based largely on a series of failed programs but it’s difficult to make a manager work very hard if the next one will come anyway. Dominici, if anyone listened, has been bemoaning the low quality of LANL patents.
    Has anyone ever wondered why the so-called external reviews are never critical? Ask about the constraint put on the reviewers. Ask your manager if the reviewers have the freedom to publish their conclusions without review by the lab bosses. I’ve seen early copies of these reviews-most people haven’t.
    There are plenty of good metrics for success of a research laboratory but try to remember the size of LANL or the size of the non-weapons budget that one must divide by. I’d wager that no LANL employee would dare post the results of such as analysis. If you are curious, try Citation Index, number of working members of the NAS, or articles published in refereed journals. Look at the technical accomplishment of the bosses. How about the results of competitions with the other labs?
    Remember too, it’s very important that we admit that Nanos has not brought us here, and he shouldn’t be expected to remove us from our past.
     
    I would agree with the previous comment to the point that we own our past. Director Nanos is not responsible for historic aspects of our 'culture' regardless of whether these aspects are good or bad. The laboratory as a whole has significantly contributed to its current situation. We have had questionable management for years with nepotism ruling the roost. Programs seem to have been driven by some 'secret' agenda that often conflicted with common technical sense. The workers and lower management really need to speak up and make a stand about how the programs should be run. We are the technical experts, after all. Upper management often seems to be following their favorite technical dream even when the technical feasibility would never qualify it for NASA, NSF or other external government funding based on peer review. We have to take back the direction that the lab is going or quit complaining about where we are going.

    Now the flip side.

    The bits of our recent situation that I know about from personal experience or the experiences of my friends leads me to believe that the Director has acted in a disproportionate manner. I think his management style is 'ham-fisted' and that his tenure has lacked any of the style or grace that one might expect from someone who has served for years as a high ranking military officer ( Yes, I know a few retired uniforms that have shown themselves to be the definition of 'gentlemen'). The current Director may just have more back bone than John Brown did or maybe Director Brown cared more about LANL. I am told that Director Brown truly felt that he should sacrifice himself so the lab could regroup and deal with both the real and imagined stupidity of the wide-spread 'fraud' situation. I don't know which path would be better for Nanos to take.

    If we care about the future of the lab and having a part in it then we need to act with professional integrity EVERY time some half baked idea is floated from any quarter. We are a scientific institution, our actions should be based on logical processes that weigh risk and benefit and we should be an institution that becomes known for doing the right thing. That means doing the right thing across the spectrum of community involvement, scientific excellence, programmatic accomplishments, etc.
     
    When you have a vindictive director who thinks he's God and can fire anyone for disagreeing with him some of us have to stay anonymous.
     
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