Monday, March 14, 2005

There are two primary losers in this debacle

From Anonymous:

In my humble opinion, there are two primary losers in this debacle: the Nation, through the virtual destruction of a prime asset, the talented and once committed workforce of Los Alamos National Laboratory, and the UC, through their failure to live up to their putative commitment to provide the Laboratory a working environment of intellectual honesty and integrity. President Dynes has been told of the Director's regular abusiveness in large groups, in small groups, in individual interactions (even at his Executive Board), by the Robbie Vogt et al team he sent to take the pulse of the workforce. This team heard the truth, the depth of the despair and lack of individual empowerment, and communicated it back to President Dynes, twice and in no uncertain terms. President Dynes either did not hear, was reassured by Admiral Foley that all was in order, or he had painted himself into a corner and did not know how to extricate himself. I think all three factors played into his inaction. He is in a difficult situation -- that is clear, but the end result is that the reputation of UC has been tarnished far more by their lack of leadership than by the sequence of operational problems that occurred on their watch. The first they could have done something about; it is less clear that the latter is under their control. I understand that steps are being taken to replace Nanos, to find him a face-saving exit and I laud that greatly, but I fear it is almost, perhaps is, too late.

I would like to call out one special class of LANL employee who has been especially damaged by all of this: good people whose careers have been trashed by a corrupt, incompetent director. Todd Kaupilla and John Horne being two such examples.
How does someone who's disgraced the nation and the laboratory save face? Stop looking for a convenient time to get rid of this criminal, that time is long past due. Just dump him now. We can "get over it" as Senator Domenici said, as soon as that goal is accomplished.
The WINNERS will be the nation and the UC employees. Correcting years of mismanagement of this asset called LANL by the next contractor is a win for the nation. The UC employees will win by having the legacy of past institutional disgrace fade into memory as competent management takes on long ignored issues. Doesn't it make sense to clean house about every 63 years?
And just which "competent" replacement contractor for UC will "clean house"?
-Northrup Grumman?
I've been watching this blog for some time now, hoping to see some evidence of analysis of the problem, possible fixes, ways to make sure that the next director can help to make Los Alamos a better place. Only occasionally do comments rise to this level, and when they do, they are derided.

The message is consistently Pete Nanos is bad, he must leave. And then what? The tooth fairy makes it all okay? I don't think so.

The Laboratory has been subjected to both natural and political assaults since the Wen Ho Lee debacle. You have every reason to feel aggrieved. But aggrieved is not a plan of action, and it easily turns into whining.

The problems are enormous, and they go beyond Pete Nanos. There are also problems within the staff. I'm not going to try to identify them for you in this short post, but if the posts here are indicative of the state of thinking of the Laboratory's staff, both scientific and support, then you are in real trouble.

I urge you to take a more forward-looking and constructive approach. The Laboratory is a national asset, and it can still contribute a lot, in national defense and in many other fields.
To the 9:38 AM poster:

First things first. Repair of the damage caused by the current director cannot begin until he is gone. Once he is gone, we can then begin examining the potential paths forward.
I agree with 9:38, the errosion of the lab continues while Nanos and many others in upper management remain. The healing cannot really begin until that change occurs. You can try to pretend the continued abuse doesn't occur, but that is just delusion. UC has had numerous notifications of the current problems, as noted above. Yet they have not made a change.

There appear to be major problems with the relationship between LANL and LASO too. I'm sure the problems are on both sides. Perhaps personnel can be changed at LASO too simultaneously so a more cooperative and productive relationship can be established, and we can return to serving the public.
I agree with what the 9:38 poster said as far as the post goes. There are problems beyond Nanos. LANL has been a disaster for some years now, at least back to Sig Hecker if not farther.

Employees do know that the solution isn't to kill the goose that laid the golden egg. Bringing in a private corporation to run the place will be great for the private corporation, but lousy for employees, whose benefits will be cut; for science, because it can't be scheduled with a project management plan; and,therefore, for the nation.

You know, the solutions are not simple and few of us have a clue why Nanos has gone after so many of us. We have some clues about why DOE and eventually Congress went after Wen Ho Lee, but these problems arise from serious problems in the nation as a whole -- racism and ignorance of world politics, to name a couple. But, having tried to explain to friends not at LANL, why the treatment of Wen Ho Lee was so dispicable, I know it is hard.

And what about the lost hard drive incidents? Surely the first was a tip off that we weren't doing a very good job of monitoring our CREM, but no direction to or funding for a foolproof system was forthcoming. So it happened again. Now how does the average employee address such issues without being accused of lunacy or even worse, insubordination? Plenty of employees dispaired over the lack of a tracking system for secret documents. But regular employees cannot allocate time and money to build a foolproof document tracking system. Sorry, but that was management's failure. Why did management fail? Good question. Too many Congressmen in their offices? To many useless meetings? Failure to pay careful attention?

And the various safety incidents? Good question. These are the most disturbing to me. Why didn't anyone mention to the scientist in question that he wasn't wearing his laser glasses? I suspect more than one person saw that he wasn't. Why didn't the student object to not wearing laser glasses? lack of information? fear of being kicked off the experiment? If anyone has any answers to those questions, I wish we could hear them. I do know that many of us spend wonder how a truly outstanding scientist could have allowed such an accident. We would like very much to know. We have to assume there was a rush to meet a deadline. Or was it overconfidence? The physical problem is well understood, but no one has explained to the staff what went wrong psychologically. How can the staff solve the problem without the facts?

Most of us have seen or heard of serious safety problems which were covered up or insufficiently analyzed because the manager in charge feared being fired for the accident. We also know people who have reported safety problems and been retaliated against. How do employees fight retaliation? Ask the DX-3 guys who actually helped learn the fate of the "missing" Zip Drives. They can tell you it isn't easy.

In the bad old days of unions, all workers put their tools down and quit work when a safety problem was reported and did not resume work until it was fixed. Nowadays, employees point fingers at each other and at their management.

Nor do many of us have any faith whatever in private industry to solve the problem. Yes, they will show us who is boss by lowering our benefits, and thereby will line their own pockets and the campaign troughs of the politicians who helped them get the contract. But do we think they will produce a sterling example of a scientific institution? Not for a minute.

We see how Enron and several other energy companies brazenly defrauded millions of people including the State of California. We saw how World Com defrauded its stock holders. We see how big companies are moving our jobs overseas. Are we supposed to look forward to this?

We saw Bell Labs dissolved because it wasn't cost effective, at least in the short run. We see that DuPont, which recently sold LANL its safety system, got into big trouble with OSHA for underreporting accidents. Why are they allowed to sell an unsafe product? Toymakers aren't allowed to do that. Why can duPont? Big companies take care of big companies, not their employees.

In the end, I agree it is the staff and all the staffs in the US that will have to solve this problem, but it isn't going to happen just at LANL. The new company will not come in to find a cheering staff awaiting their magnificent governance. We read the papers and talk to friends.

Improvement will only happen if forward thinking Americans come up with a new and more intelligent way to fund science and everything else, for that matter.
I disagree with the 8:12am post.

The Nation won't be a winner because LANL will continue in its role as the premier source of Northern NM federal welfare for the forseeable future. Doesn't matter who runs the place. If not welfare for the science types as some suggest, then to the locals doing whatever, as others suggest.

Competent or not, the next contractor will simply take a larger fee for doing the job. It's a zero-sum game, so there will be fewer high-paying jobs. It really will be just a cost-benefit analysis to them.

I doubt LANL's UC employees will be winners because I doubt most even think of themselves in that way. Most don't care about UC per se. True, almost all care about the pension, but most certainly don't give a crap if UC has budget problems and student fees are raised or not all the "qualified" HS kids in CA get to go to UC. Similarly, they didn't decide on LANL's management, and I doubt they really care what the rest of the country thinks of UC's choice. Most don't take the abuse dished out to UC personally. That's UC's problem. If UC wants an untarnished reputation, then don't bid on LANL. My pay level is certainly far too low to even further contemplate such things.

To be honest, I couldn't care less if NG or UC-Bechtel or someone else wins and keeps all of LANL's current management or brings in a cadre of incredibly competent leaders. My opinion is it just doesn't matter. LANL will become whatever it is meant to become. Life is too short to be agonizing over things which I have no control. Those who think their vision of LANL is worth fighting for will do so, those who don't, won't.

As far as correcting problems goes, there will simply be the next contractor's way of running the place. If the problems (whatever they might be) appear to diminish, then they will claim what they did was the solution. If they do not go away, then that wasn't the solution and they'll give it another shot. They will continue to do so as long as they get the fee and it appears worth the effort.

Once it appears no longer worth the effort, they will simply leave.
Re: the 7:11 pm post:

Well, folks, there you have it: the existentialist view on LANL. It is what is is, and it shall be what it will become.
To the 7:30 pm post. I see you have
given up. There will be losers.
Look the US needs a strong science base. Despite what people say about
LANL there are very good reasons UC
wants to run LANL. Los Alamos has
the most scientific publications
per year of all the DOE labs. More
the Livermore, Sandia, Argone, Fermi,
and Oak Ridge. Work done at Los Alamos
will for sure win the Nobel prize
in physics in the future. Los ALamos
is ranked the 11th most in impact in
physics in world in terms of papers
and citations. This is big stuff. UC
knows it and wants to keep it. There
is a large number of faculty at
various universities in the US that
either got Ph.d training
at Los Alamos, where postdocs, or
staff, way more than the other
DOE labs. The loss of science at
Los Alamos will be a major blow to the nation. The physcis community
knows how important LANL is. Why
do you think Physics Today, Nature,
and Science mention it so much?
We must do something.
I suggest that if you must do something, then do it.

I have not given up. There is no need to. I will be here until it no longer makes sense, as will many others. No point in being foolish. I will wait until the next contractor either tells me they don't want me if I go inactive, or that I can stay and start as a new hire at time zero with them. That pretty well summarizes what I think it will boil down to. I assume the benefits and pension will become nothing special for new hires.

I've been here for some cool stuff and this has been the best place I've ever worked.

I just don't waste time thinking about what LANL will become. Operations based, component production, World's Greatest Science, no science, environmental cleanup, homeland security, make-work for the locals, welfare for the scientists and engineers, post-docs, no post-docs, students, no students, good managers, bad managers, etc. That's for someone else to worry about.

If the next contractor says write project plans and fill out paperwork, then that's what I'll do, just like everyone else. If they say go do some science or analysis, then I'll do that. If they say make slides for the DRC or some NNSA dog and pony show, then I'll do that. Won't be losing sleep over it, that's for sure.

So the physics community thinks physics at LANL is important. That's nice. Really. What are they going to do about it, write to their Congressional reps? Write to DOE and NNSA? Demand hearings? Be outraged and not do physics anymore? Offer jobs to all the LANL physicists?

I would think "Science" at LANL is the people mainly. Suppose LANL de-emphasizes science. Isn't there plenty of room elsewhere to pick these people up and for the science to continue?

Yeah, there'll be losers, maybe even the US and UC. So what else is new? Is this an alien concept?

I agree that the US needs a strong science base. Show me that it doesn't have one. This is in the vein of the bullshit claim there's a shortage of scientists and engineers. I always look at who's making the claim and why.

If the US didn't have a strong science base, then it would be spending more money on science instead of something else. If the US is indeed misallocating its resources in this area, then it's plausible other countries will gain a competitive advantage and the standard of living in the US will decline.

If you really want to read some sad stuff, read the National Academy of Engineering report, "Raising Public Awareness of Engineering" (2002).
Hey 2:11am post.

Things you cannot defeat you start to believe in. I am doing something about it. If anything is still left to your soul you will also.
Ignored by these comments is that UC has never, in 63 years, given a damn about LANL. This is adequately documented in the Zinner, Gerberding, Jendresen and Gold Reports, all by the Academic Senate of UC. These are conveniently available at
Given this history, the question would seem to be how to engage UC in actual management of LANL. It would appear that some sort of "risk" and "reward" is needed, with "real" penalties ties to LANL failures and "real" rewards to the UC for successes. The current "no risk - no reward" scheme produces the obvious result; no management.
It remains to be seen if UC is willing to engage the LANL problems, many of which trace back to 63 years of UC reglect. UC wanted no part of LANL, actually LASL at the time, after WWII. They got their arm twisted by Lawrence (who wanted money for the Rad Lab) and the Regents (chaired by a pal of Lawrence). UC agreed to "manage" the Lab, in exchange for AEC money for Lawrence, but without any enthusiasm. This continues to this day, when UC "checks in" only to do damage control.
You might try writing to Dynes at UC encouraging him to "step up to the plate", and really commit UC and their resources to LANL. For instance, UC should appoint the DRC committees. Currently LANL management does, which is why the DRCs usually find LANL outstanding. A good deal of reform is needed. Going on with UC, in the current mode, does not serve LANL or the nation; yet this seems to be what most of the bloggers want.
Improvement is possible. Sandia , as I think we could agree, works a heap better than LANL; so corporate management is not the "kiss of death".
These comments I keep seeing throughout the blog -- "Sandia does it
better", et al. They all seem suspiciously like the comments of
a well known critic of LANL. You can bet your bottom dollar it's
Chris Mechels. I've seen similar sounding comments of late in
the SF New Mexican. Chris is a well known sore-head who feels that
LANL did him wrong many years ago, and has wanted to get back at
the lab ever since. He must be having orgasms of revenge pleasure
by this point in time. Don't soil your pants, Chris.
The problem with Mechels (even if it wasn't him who was posting the pro-Sandia comments) is not necessarly with what he says, it is that he can't seem to stop himself from saying it over and over again.

Repetition is a tool that maybe works well with two year olds and puppies; with everybody else it's a turn-off.
Hey, 2:42 am post.

Nice line. Don't know if I quite agree though.

Glad you are doing something about it. Whatever it might be.

As far as what's left of my soul, well now that's a very good point. Don't think LANL ever really got in there, certainly not as a very important part. I have no self-identification issues with LANL. Then again, I don't really have any with what I do for a job either.
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