Sunday, February 13, 2005

More LANL In The News

Sunday, February 13, 2005

LANL's Priority Must Be Excellence

By Charles R. Mansfield
Member of the executive council of the Coalition for LANL Excellence and the president of the Laboratory Retiree Group, Inc.

OTHER VOICES: The Coalition for LANL Excellence has recently been organized to address issues surrounding the draft Request for Proposals to select the future management contractor for the Los Alamos National Laboratory. The coalition was started by LANL retirees and employees concerned about the lack of definition of benefits in the draft. However, the issues that have been raised go beyond the issue of benefits. Indeed, these issues affect all of northern New Mexico and the nation.
Maintaining an appropriate balance between administrative oversight­ management­ and academic freedom has been a major concern since the establishment of the laboratory in 1943. The mission of the Manhattan Project exceeded the capabilities of technology at the start of the project. Gen. Leslie Groves, who was in charge of the Manhattan Project district for the U.S. Army, argued that the project should be organized along strict military lines.

The project's director, J. Robert Oppenheimer, knew that in order to solve the multitude of problems that existed, the maximum creative ability on the part of the participants would be required. The initial choice to manage the Manhattan Project under the University of California was a choice fought for and won by Oppenheimer. This balance between academic freedom and strict control has been difficult to maintain; however, it is one of the fundamental reasons that LANL has become synonymous with scientific and engineering excellence for the nation.

LANL's impact
How does this balancing act affect the people of northern New Mexico and the nation? The answer lies in the maintenance of excellence. The economic impact of LANL on northern New Mexico, including Santa Fe, cannot be overstated. LANL must continue to be the primary economic engine of this area and to expand this role when possible. The people of the area and of the nation are affected by the cutting-edge research and development that takes place at LANL.

What factors are important in achieving excellence? Achieving and maintaining excellence are not easy tasks for management. Both technical staff and support personnel contribute to excellence. Since new concepts and approaches to solutions generally originate with the technical staff. I will concentrate on that group of employees. In order to maintain excellence, the very best scientists, engineers and professional support staff must be sought out and retained.

The first important factor is to attract the very best. What is the attraction for the best scientists and engineers to come to a small town in the northern mountains of New Mexico? The attractions include: challenging problems to solve, recognition in universities and technical societies, an excellent local school system, the best support personnel and attractive compensation and benefits, including retirement.

The second important factor is to keep the best. Retention factors include: leadership on the part of local management, respect given to all employees by local management, support by the laboratory for professional organizations, and encouragement of employees to publish technical results where possible. Above all, the employees must feel confident that their benefits will be substantially equivalent should there be a change of the management contract of the laboratory. Moreover, the employees must know that their efforts are rewarded with compensation and benefits commensurate with those efforts.

Strengthening the RFP
The coalition arranged and hosted a meeting on Jan. 16 with Tyler Przybylek, Chair of the source evaluation board that will evaluate the bid proposals received and make a recommendation for a contract award to the secretary of energy. More than 500 people were in attendance. There was a lively, extensive and informative exchange with Przybylek and the attendees addressing concerns over the draft RFP and its failing to adequately address the importance of employee and retiree benefits, including salaries, retirement plans and health care. On the following day, a town hall meeting attended by more than 300 people, employees and retirees with U.S. Rep. Tom Udall alerted the New Mexico congressional delegation that significant problems with the draft RFP might affect the long-term stability of the laboratory.

The coalition believes that comments it submitted in response to the draft RFP will help to strengthen the final RFP in areas that will improve the attractiveness of LANL in the recruitment and retention of the best scientists, engineers and professional support staff. We encourage involvement of additional interested parties in the coalition. We intend to remain active throughout the award of the contract and beyond to ensure that our voices are heard.

The coalition will stay in communication with our congressional delegation and the contract evaluation board throughout the award process and hopes to provide information that will be of value to these parties, as well as to those most likely to be affected by any changes in a successor contractor. The coalition has also recently requested the development of a "communications channel" with LANL: the Yahoo Coalition for LANL Excellence group Web site, available to the public.

To date the Coalition has incurred costs, amounting to about $1,500, for such things as the rental of the Duane Smith Auditorium for the meetings with Przybylek, the production of PAC-8 videos of the meetings with Przybylek and Rep. Udall and the distribution of these videos to the New Mexico congressional delegation, Governor Richardson, the laboratory, the public access channels in Los Alamos, Española and Santa Fe and the public libraries in those same cities. A coalition account has been established at the Los Alamos National Bank under the name "Coalition for LANL Excellence." Contributions of any amount to support the coalition's efforts will be greatly appreciated.

Mansfield is a member of the executive council of the Coalition for LANL Excellence and the president of the Laboratory Retiree Group, Inc. He would like to thank Newby Ellington for editorial support in writing this article.

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