Thursday, March 03, 2005

Lab terms could cause migration

From The Albuquerque Tribune:

By James W. Brosnan
March 3, 2005

WASHINGTON - New Mexico's senators sternly warned Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman today that many of the top scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory will leave if the terms of competition for management of the lab are not changed.

Albuquerque Republican Pete Domenici, Chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, and Silver City Democrat Jeff Bingaman, the ranking Democrat, criticized proposed contract language that would require lab employees to switch from the University of California pension plan to a lab-only plan managed by whatever corporation wins the competition.

Domenici, an Albuquerque Republican, opened the committee's hearing on the Department of Energy's budget by telling Bodman that "some of the things that have been proposed are just very discouraging to me" and that lab employees "are having a very hard time understanding what this does to them."

"You can't afford to have a huge migration because of a contract bidding process," Domenici continued. "Maybe that won't happen. But you don't want it to happen. We don't want it to happen."

The lab has been run from its inception by the University of California, but repeated safety and security concerns caused the department to put the contract up a competitive bidding. The contract is to be awarded this fall.

But instead of strengthening the lab, Bingaman said, "I'm concerned that the effect of this competition is to destabilize the laboratory." Bingaman said he fears "many of the most talented people" will move to another employer.

Both senators stressed that Bodman, who has been on the job about a month, needs to become personally involved in the contract competition. Bodman promised he would involve himself in the pension question. He said he already has spoken at length to Linton Brooks, administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, about the pension issue and plans to speak next week to the chairman of the selection board for the contract.

Bodman assured Bingaman the goal of the competition "was to level the playing field and not to try to exclude anyone."

Domenici and Bodman will have the weekend to talk more about the issue: They're leaving on a junket Friday to Alaska to publicize the administration's push to open up oil drilling in the caribou breeding grounds of the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge. Interior Secretary Gale Norton and four other senators, all supporters of drilling, will accompany them.

Go Pete! Go Jeff!
Aren't they a bit late in warning Bodeman about this?! Many top scientists have already left or are leaving!
C'mon, it's never too late to give a last reminder and show the voters they really care.
This entire contract rebid can be stopped anytime there is the political will to do so. Luckily, the New Mexico senators are beginning to understand the problem. Now all we have to worry about is a brand new Secretary of DOE and all those potential bidders out there who would like to take a crack at running the world's most famous nuclear weapons laboratory, and the executive branch of the government.
It is a tall mountain but not an insurmountable one, because it is true that grass roots movements are what really determine long term political change.
There is, however, a very important problem that we must all solve together. It is in the best interests of LANL employees to stay employeed by the University of California, that is practically universally agreed upon.

The problem is that LANL has had major management problems for for a very long time. UC has not provided good leadership for LANL; it has just provided good benefits for employees.

Nor do I think private industry will do a better job. Look at Enron, World Com, Arthur Anderson, The New York Stock Exchange and a host of other private industries which have been found to have committed numerous illegal activities in recent years. We can only be thankful that they didn't own any nuclear materials or hazardous pathogens.

The problem is that managers of large institutions, government or private, have frequently been motivated by personal greed or by ego, rather than a desire to do a good job. Salaries for upper level managers, everywhere in the US are so high that even a couple of years of poor performance will give them financial independence for life.

LANL is no different. Everyone agrees that something has been lost in laboratory management since the early days. Each one of us has his or her own idea when those early days ended, but I think almost everone will agree that they are over.

The challenge for the US, DOE, UC, LANL and the employees left when the new contract begins, is to figure out how to hold the government and the new (or continued) contractor accountable for managing for the well being of the nation and its citizens, including the ones it employs.

I cannot imagine the management advice that would include punishing the innocent, allowing upper management to break all the rules, and punishing those who report rule breaking or safety hazards. Yet I see this behavior frequently at LANL. Every one I have ever met who has taken a Human Resources class has remarked at how LANL fails to follow anything taught in Human Resources classes. It is not entirely the fault of those who work in the Human Resources department, but HR workers aren't entirely blameless either.

I believe it will be disasterous if UC loses the contract, not because UC is so good at management, but only because the proposed contract looks so bad. I want UC to win, but I am really sick of the corruption I see being allowed to run rampant through LANL.

What LANL employees need to do is to speak up to management and to DOE and especially to UC and tell them when they are wrong, no matter who wins the contract. When we see in the newspaper the way whistleblowers have been treated in the past, speaking up becomes a truly terrifying possibility. Yet we have to do it and support others who do it or nothing will change.

LANL has dismissed, one way or the other, several Directors in the past 20 years. I have seen them start out brilliantly then fall on their faces lots of time.

I can only hope that management and employees will both have the intelligence to work together, with mutual respect, in the future. The entire nation could learn from us if we could figure out how to hold ourselves and management accountable for maintaining the common good.
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