Saturday, May 14, 2005

"Culture" of the Lab

From the May 9 LANL NewsBulletin:

May 9, 2005

"Culture" of the Lab

I am deeply disappointed in the National Nuclear Security Administration following the Jerry Paul testimony on May 5 to the subcommittee on Oversight of the House Energy and Commerce committee ( An NNSA representative stated that "we in NNSA felt that inattention to safety procedures at the Laboratory presented a greater problem. Together [with the CREM episode] they led us to believe that a culture of non-compliance existed within the Laboratory." This follows on a statement last July, from none other than the director of this Laboratory, that there is a "culture of arrogance" here. It is difficult to imagine language that could be more damaging to this institution.

Let's examine these uses of the word "culture." Anthropologists generally use it to describe a set of customs and behavioral norms shared by the majority of a population. In every large population, there are aberrant instances of behavior shunned by the majority. These do not reflect "culture" but rather the abandonment of it.

The number of Lab employees disciplined after last year's safety and security incidents is a handful (about 12) in a population of about 8,000. Even if one accepts their punishment as deserved, a handful is not, by definition, "cultural." Yet the NNSA and some managers at the Lab continue to refer to "cultural" problems on an almost daily basis. This seems to fly in the face of Brad Holian's careful analysis showing that the Lab safety record is comparable to the rest of the complex. It also contradicts data on security violations at the three weapons labs that was publicly released by NNSA itself (Santa Fe New Mexican, Feb. 9 2005).

If we have identified procedural flaws, let's call them that and fix them -- and move on. Let's not refer to them as indicative of bad "culture." If I were one of the Laboratory's customers and knew little about the institution other than that its own managers decried a "culture of arrogance," I would be unlikely to send funding to the Lab for national security work. That is how this contemptuous language is hurting our future prospects at the Lab. Having worked diligently with classified information for the last decade, and having spent countless hours writing Laboratory hazard documentation, I get more than a little annoyed at being lumped into some chimerical "culture" of disregard for safety and security.

I have a proposal: for the next year, let's ban the use of the word "culture" at Los Alamos. COMPASS can find a new catchy acronym. In the intervening time, let's reflect on the true meaning of "culture" and find a way to characterize problems and corrective actions that doesn't polarize the Lab community. Perhaps then we will learn how to use the word appropriately.

As for our customers in the NNSA, I have this question: Are we working together as a team to advance the state of national security, or will we give in to the kind of bitter divisiveness inherent in the misuse of language? I'd like to think the former, but at present I'm not so sure.

--Bernard Foy

I think people better know what they
are really saying when the use the word
culture. By the way Sue Seestrom just
sent out a memo out using the word "culture".
When you say culture you
mean everyone is bad. We have heard stuff
like this before and you know where it can
lead in the end. It is a word simply used
as an excuse to get rid of groups of people.
Good piece Bernie!
Blaming human accidents and errors on "culture" numbers among the oldest cop-outs in humanity. It is the root cause of much of human superstition and almost all of human prejudice. The ledgers of infamy attest to this truth. Moreover, the rate at which outsiders default to this explanation is directly proportional to the complexity of the activity being evaluated. That simply reason goes a long way toward explaining why events at Los Alamos that would go virtually unnoticed in other laboratories and sites instantly turn into the lynching of truth and proportionality here. Possibly, ignorance of intervening facts and limited understanding of complexity are the twin "cultures" of those who criticize and critique us. Oh well, two can play the same game.
" I have a proposal: for the next year, let's ban the use of the word "culture" at Los Alamos."

I've found the word to be a handy shibboleth for distinguishing people with creative solutions from people who think in macros.
As far as culture is concerned, isn't this NNSA and DOE culture rather than LANL, UC etc. which puts us all in trouble? The possible change to Lockheed Martin, or anything else will not change the fact that all nonsense undermining safety, security, and any useful activity at LANL, comes from NNSA/DOE. And on top of that we will have an elephant, abusive, non-scientific institution. Think about it before rejecting UC so strongly.
The DOE/NNSA composite "cu***re" (in keeping with the suggestion in 5/14/2005 10:54:00 PM) seems to be anti-nuclear, anti-science, and anti-lab. This cu***re appears to prevail regardless of the party in power. This observation strongly suggests the cu***re is the consensus position of the permanent DOE/NNSA bureaucracy. The net result as previously reported here on this blog is that the USA has the most expensive and least productive nuclear weapons program in the world. In short, we spend the most money of the declared nuclear weapon states but Pakistan can built more pits than we can. China has a new criticality safety complex while ours sits in boxes awaiting shipment to Nevada. China also has modern scientific complexes to support its smaller program while we have people stuffed into some structures dating back to the 1950s. India can make more tritium for its weapons and we can. Finally, several nations have experimental test programs that seem much more advanced than ours. How can this difference be explained? The answer is that we spend enormous sums of money accomplishing often inane and repetitious orders and regulations that add little and in many cases nothing to security, safety, or environmental protection. The seeming purpose of these orders and regulations are twofold. First, they serve to maintain the employment of a growing bureaucracy that once but no longer oversaw the world's largest industrial complex. Secondly, the orders and regulations focus on shifting responsibility away from the rule makers onto the scientists, engineers, technicians, and support staff that are trying their best to sustain our nuclear weapons in an absolutely reliable and absolutely safe condition without being allowed to actually test them.

The truth about cu***re sometimes hurts but it must be said. However, I must say that I have many, many friends in the DOE/NNSA bureaucracy that fully understand what has happened and are as frustrated and as aggravated as I am.

The question is what can we do about it?
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