Friday, March 18, 2005

Then there was a closed session down the hall

From Anonymous:

[Regarding Los Alamos National Laboratory Director Peter Nanos' testimony today before a subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee]

This was not a great day for representative democracy: The first softball regarding the minor cost overcharge on the tuff sheds set the tenor of the encounter. Considering the damage done by Dr. Nanos' stand down that line on inquiry was like a judge asking Saddam Hussein if he knew that he had an overdue book from the prison library.

Then there was that discrepancy on how much the stand down cost. Dr. Nanos (Note: only once was the title of Admiral used) gave the cost at $136M-- under oath mind you. Ambassador Brooks estimated the cost at $367M and glibly said the real answer is "somewhere in between." (Thank God that neither one of them is my banker and POGO, much closer to reality, put the figure at $1B.) Once upon a time, confessing such a discrepancy in cost before a congressional committee would have been like tossing red meat to hungry wolves. This morning opportunity to chew was fell upon toothless puppies who gummed the discrepancy and blamed it entirely on the University of California, the only party not represented at the table. In fact most of the morning was spend throwing darts at the UC. No voice came forcefully to the defense of the University including those of Dr. Nanos and Ambassador Brooks.

When Dan Brown's name was called out Dr. Nanos seemed to have leaped out to another planet. Maybe he was looking for Brown who was already there. In any case, Dr. Nanos should have had a point by point critique of the allegations Brown had raised. If one existed, he didn't seem to know about it. Then maybe Dr. Nanos thought the Congressman had said, John Browne (the "e" is silent like the defenders of the UC).

An interesting vignette transpired when Dr. Nanos was asked about his support at the Laboratory. Under oath he said, "I think that the majority of the people support what I am doing" (or something to that effect). The operative word is "think" because "thinking" erroneous thoughts can be done under oath.

Somehow Big Blue emerged as a point of discussion. Dr. Nanos said that it took seven years to change the culture of that behemoth from thinking mainframes to thinking PCs. We all know how successful the IBM cultural change has been. Almost all trolls have IBM PCs. Dr. Nanos promised to change the culture at Los Alamos in five. Similar results are expected here. He did say we are at the "tipping point." Maybe he actually meant the "breaking point."

Dr. Nanos' statement that the Laboratory would be back on schedule with its major programs, including missed stockpile tests, by the end of the month begged the obvious question: "Did the missed tests negatively impact the safety and reliability of the Nation's enduring nuclear stockpile?" Alas, again the silence was deafening.

Then there was a closed session down the hall where we can only assumed that ice creams, cookies, and punch were served.

This is my first time here, please excuse any lapses of protocol.

I didn't hear this testimony myself, but a co-worker who did said that Nanos made mention of a "moron badge" or something like that, in connection with CREM. From the CW's description, this sounded incredibly offensive, but the CW isn't exactly an objective, detached party. (Who could be, under the circumstances?) If anyone reading this heard the comment, or better yet has a video or hard-copy transcript, could you fill us in on what was said and the context? Thanks.
As has been stated many times before, and mostly taken as a defense of Nanos (when it isnt always).. the view of most of the people off the hill, Democrat and Republican, is that LANL has been a disfunctional place for a LONG time..

The questions and answers from the people in Congress reflect that. Both parties lobbed questions that seemed mostly to state "Why is LANL broken, Mr Director?" and "When will it be fixed?". Not "Is it broken?" and "Why are you trying to change it?" As far as these congressmen and heck the people who watch Fox or CBSnews, or read the New York Times.. LANL has been filled with an arrogant culture and someone has to be sent to fix it.

From the questions, comments, and statements from Congress, DOE, and even UC.. I would not expect Nanos to be replaced by anyone less like him. Heck they will probably dictate that the person has to be even tougher than Nanos has been.

The fact is that people on both sides of the political fence are pretty tired of LANL this and LANL that. They want the mess to go away because they have other messes that they would rather deal with. The Cold War is over, and as far as most of them care.. the problems of a $75k and above person in a state where the average salary is $25k are a pittance when they have their own constiuence out looking for jobs because everything is moving to China.

Yes some of them are in the pocket of big corporations (that has been the case for both parties for a LOOONG time).. but a lot of them have problems in their own districts that they would rather see 2 billion dollars ear-marked for.

In some ways Saint Pete's advice of 'getting over it' is probably the best.. because if you can't it would be better to go somewhere else because it isnt going to go back to the 1980's or 90's. Its going to be a tough slog and those who expect that budgets, staff, and benefits are going to get smaller are better off somewhere else. This will definately be the case when the Saint's term is up... the next senator is not going to have the pull to keep bring salaries and science dollars to LANL.
To 9:39: (Doug: Would it be possible to get dates of postings shown along with times? Would make life way simpler! Thanks!)

I saw the testimony. Don't have an exact transcript, and don't work with CREM myself so can't verify, but apparently now when one checks out CREM from a library, one is required, for the duration that the CREM is in one's custody, to wear an orange badge around one's neck that has a large "M" on it. Don't know what the "M" is intended to stand for, (CREM spelled backwards, perhaps?) but in his testimony, Nanus joked that it stood for "Moron".

After the "butthead" and "cowboy" fiasco, an intelligent leader should know better than to say something like that in public.

But then, again...
I disliked the standdown as much as all of us, and personally think that a leader is no longer capable of effective leadership once nearly everyone below him has lost respect for them - at that point it's time to stand down.

But isn't it about time to focus on bigger issues than names that he chooses to use? Come on - he's a military guy - they're not exactly trained in political correctness. Spend more time pointing out the more important facts, and you'll have a stronger case against him. Simply saying 'that name offended me' just reinforces the opinion that we're all just a bunch of primadonna-type scientists up here.
To 11:04:
When he calls his underlings "morons" in congressional testimony, is this not a big issue? Would he refer to his swabbies as "morons" when speaking to his superiors in the navy?
I can think of many good reasons to chuck my short LANL career and start again elsewhere:

1 Spend the day trying to defend the United States, then get smeared by Congress.

2 Work for less pay than one could get in a more desirable locale.

3 Spend large fractions of time on mandated trivia, little on meaningful work.

4 Work in decaying buildings or trailers.

5 Defend oneself against frequent groundless accusations, knowing everything you've built could be destroyed by the next political eruption.

Is this really the whole of the matter, or is there some weighty counterargument I'm missing?
It's amazing how someone can write a nice thoughtful summary like this and then ruin it with some utterly inane aside:

"Almost all trolls have IBM PCs."

Almost all _computer users_ have PCs. Very few anymore are IBM branded. More than that are linux based. Do you, or anyone, have the slightest bit of evidence correlating computer brand with trolling? Do you even know what trolling is? Hint: it's not simply disagreeing with the majority.
Agreed, the comment on trolls was inane and represented a moment of frustration.
Author, thanks for the mea culpa. It is not common on the internet.

I am curious:

(1) is there a link to the testimony transcript?

(2) was Nanos referring to the transition of IBM culture from mainframes to PCs, which I think took longer than 7 years, or from PCs/disk drives/ printers/ hardware/ research to SERVICES, which did take about that time? The latter is much more frightening in what it implys about his "vision" of the future of your laboratory.
It's truly amazing to hear members of Congress grill NNSA and lab leaders about lack of oversight and accountability and never once hear a response about the hyper-audited nature of the DOE/Lab relationship. Why not hand the committee a list of every audit, visit, investigation and report done by UC, DOE, NNSA, IG, GAO, DNFSB, Labor Dept., DRCs, etc. in a typical year and ask NNSA what concrete benefits came of such parental attention? Why not state that the lab mission and its science have been compromised by the constant requirement to check boxes and hire layer upon layer of staff to meet the demands of DOE orders and audits? Why not say that the real culprit is NOT UC, but the micromanaging of an agency that has been officially declared dysfunctional numerous times by Congress? And why not at least mention how DOE has completely destroyed the original Government-Contractor relationship that was supposed to enable Los Alamos to maintain scientific excellence and a measure of independence essential to honest evaluation of the U.S. nuclear deterrent?
The Daily Newsbulletin failed to post any notice of the subcommittee hearing until just before Nanos began to testify, nearly two hours after the hearing started and long after most employees had checked the Newsbulletin and begun their daily tasks. When lab directors have testified to Congress previously, employees were notified. Perhaps there was something in Friday's testimony that was either so painful or so true that it wasn't appropriate for staff who "can't handle the truth." Thanks to the blog and RealPlayer, though, you could hear the Director's voice all up and DOWN the hallowed halls of LANL.
The 9:55am poster hit the problem squarely on the head;

"...DOE has completely destroyed the original Government-Contractor relationship that was supposed to enable Los Alamos to maintain scientific excellence and a measure of independence..."


Why are two well known non-DOE national labs run by universities so successful in carrying out their respective missions for the government and never seem to do anything wrong in the eyes of the press/Congress - specifically; NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) which is managed by CalTech and DOD's Lincoln Laboratory which is managed by MIT. Both are government owned labs that have been operated by the same contractors - without a competitive bidding process - since their inceptions in the 1940s. Unlike NASA and DOD, DOE has throw the Federally Funded Research and Development Center (FFRDC) concept out the window, and with it the whole rationale for having a contractor run FFRDC in the first place.

What is an FFRDC? Well section I.098 of Contract 36 says LANL is one, and here's what Part 35 of the Federal Acquisition Regulations (48 CFR) says they are;

"35.017 Federally Funded Research and Development Centers.
(a) Policy.

(1) This section sets forth Federal policy regarding the establishment, use, review, and termination of Federally Funded Research and Development Centers (FFRDC's) and related sponsoring agreements.

(2) An FFRDC meets some special long-term research or development need which cannot be met as effectively by existing in-house or contractor resources. FFRDC's enable agencies to use private sector resources to accomplish tasks that are integral to the mission and operation of the sponsoring agency. An FFRDC, in order to discharge its responsibilities to the sponsoring agency, has access, beyond that which is common to the normal contractual relationship, to Government and supplier data, including sensitive and proprietary data, and to employees and facilities. The FFRDC is required to conduct its business in a manner befitting its special relationship with the Government, to operate in the public interest with objectivity and independence, to be free from organizational conflicts of interest, and to have full disclosure of its affairs to the sponsoring agency. It is not the Government's intent that an FFRDC use its privileged information or access to facilities to compete with the private sector. However, an FFRDC may perform work for other than the sponsoring agency under the Economy Act, or other applicable legislation, when the work is not otherwise available from the private sector.

(3) FFRDC's are operated, managed, and/or administered by either a university or consortium of universities, other not-for-profit or nonprofit organization, or an industrial firm, as an autonomous organization or as an identifiable separate operating unit of a parent organization.

(4) Long-term relationships between the Government and FFRDC's are encouraged in order to provide the continuity that will attract high-quality personnel to the FFRDC. This relationship should be of a type to encourage the FFRDC to maintain currency in its field(s) of expertise, maintain its objectivity and independence, preserve its familiarity with the needs of its sponsor(s), and provide a quick response capability."
4:31AM -- You took the words right out of my mouth (erm, keys right out of my fingers?). I ask myself those questions so frequently it isn't funny. I think the only reason I stick with it up there is that, in theory, things should change later this year in some way. It's still up in the air as to whether or not that change will be for the good or just a continuation of the disrespect that we scientists have been hammered by for the last 8 months or so.
If that's the case, *sigh*.
Regarding Nanos' "Moron" comment:

This comment came during the Q&A session after his opening remarks. I have found a transcript for the opening remarks but not the Q&A. The full video used to be on CSPAN’s web site but apparently it was removed on the morning of March 21 (the testimony dates from March 18, 2005). You can find the full testimony including the Q&A on the The Committee on Energy and Commerce’s website:

Follow this link to Connect to the archive of this hearing webcast. Nanos’ “Moron” comment comes at about the 2 hour 31 minute mark after a question from Congressman Wilson of Oregon:

Mr. WILSON: Is there a…uh…event to turn in there media before they’re allowed out the door?

Dr. NANOS: Yes sir, as a matter of fact in some areas you’ll find people walking around with chains around their neck with a big orange card on it. It’s called the “M-card” or the moron card.

The laughter that follows comes from Nanos alone…it’s a tough room. The next question from Mr. Wilson is interesting in that he asks if Nanos believes he has “buy in” from the LANL employees.
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