Friday, May 27, 2005

An entirely unnecessary mess

(I sent the following to Keay Davidson and thought it should be posted on The Blog, since it will be abstracted, if quoted at all.)

Here's my take on NNSA's (or DOE's, if you prefer) contract for managing Los Alamos National Laboratory. First of all, UC has never really "run" Los Alamos; it has only lent its cachet of academic freedom and scientific excellence to the institution, and has gotten back in return considerable prestige from LANL's own scientific output. Scientific research at LANL is a spin-off from the military-industrial program, and it has absorbed only a tiny fraction of the largesse that has been thrown at the Lab by Congress. But the benefits to the nation from this research far exceed anything that has been gained over the years by having on the order of a hundred times more nuclear weapons
than the country has ever really needed.

As to the current choices for managers of LANL, I vote for "None of the above," but only because our "ablest" politicians have decided that leaving things alone is not an option. My reasons are as follows.

NO to UC and Bechtel: UC has shown itself to be clueless and spineless in the face of the horrible damage that former Director Nanos did to the institution, and to the science produced therein, when he unwisely shut the Lab down. Bechtel is a slimy corporate entity whose main claim to fame is being second only to Halliburton in greedily soaking up tax dollars in Iraq.

NO to Lockheed Martin and the University of Texas: LockMart's candidate for Director of Los Alamos is quoted in the papers yesterday as saying that only a corporate entity like LockMart can cure the "problems" in security and safety that have occurred at LANL, even though, objectively speaking, there have been no more safety and security problems at LANL than at Sandia, which is a national lab run by -- you guessed it -- LockMart. Even reputable newspapers like the San Francisco Chronicle have fallen into the trap of saying that there have been security and safety problems at Los Alamos, when in fact, the real problem at LANL is public relations. UC has handled the PR in a most incredibly inept way, but that has little to do with science itself. Whereas LockMart will substitute factory production for science at LANL and will cover up any safety and security breaches that might occur much more skillfully than UC ever could, the scientific credentials of UT make it a lame substitute for UC as an academic partner.

NO to Northrup-Grumman: Another greedy member of the Carlyle-Group military-industrial complex, whose only claim to fame is making nuclear submarines on which Los Alamos-designed nuclear warheads reside. Not even an academic pretense here.

So who should run Los Alamos? I say the buck should be made to stop where the real responsibility for political and bureaucratic buffoonery originates, namely, the Department of Energy itself. Cut out the
middleman. Since there would no longer be any need for a bloated manager's fee, that money could be used to roughly double the amount presently spent on basic research at the Lab. Let DOE/NNSA, the entity that has always run LANL, be exposed to the light of day, without any window dressing of a corporate "manager." And if science is no longer valued in this country, is there any need for the window dressing of an "academic" partner, either?

Note that my "endorsement" of DOE/NNSA running the Lab should be taken with an enormous grain of salt. My point is that DOE should be nailed for the political mess they've created and the damage they have done to the Lab. UC should be blamed for letting them get away with it and not saying a word in the Lab's defense. As to the stand-alone retirement system, well, that's a transparent attempt to line corporate pockets, and the effect of all this nonsense is to prompt more people to retire early -- as I did -- just for self-protection.

-Brad Lee Holian (retired LANL staff member)

Postscript: I notice that yesterday Northrup-Grumman withdrew in favor of the Carlyle Group partner LockMart. No loss there. The bottom line is, this whole thing is a mess -- an entirely unnecessary mess. A rational Director, a sensible DOE bureaucracy (OK, oxymoron!) in Washington, a sensible Congress, and a UC bureaucracy that valued the Lab -- any one of these things -- could have prevented the catastrophe that has befallen Los Alamos.

What is the point of the references to the Carlyle Group? Included in their portfolio is not Bechtel, not Lockheed-Martin and not Northrup-Grumman. Look it up on-line. Mentioning the Carlyle Group at all sounds like careless left-wing name calling, without any meaning.
Brad has done a pretty good job of explaining his vote of "none of the above". I agree with most of his comments.

I recall that, back in the late 80s when the UC contract was up for renewal, a UC committee of faculty (I think it became known as the Jendressen Committee, but am not sure) was established. It's purpose was to talk to selected LANL employees about how they felt about LANL and the UC relationship. They were to then report back to the UC Faculty Senate and the Regents, and make a recommendation as to whether UC should continue to run the Lab. As a new TSM at that time, I was eager to tell UC how much I loved the Lab and being a UC employee because I wanted UC to retain the contract. Turns out, so did the other 25 or 30 people the committee interviewed. We believed that we had done our part to keep UC in our lives. Well, were we surprised when we learned the committee recommended that the UC Regents vote to not keep the contract. Some of the questions asked during the interview pertained to how UC was involved in our lives. The committee claimed that we interviewees did not have much to say on this, other than our paychecks had University of California written on them.

As for Brad's statements about academic freedom, he's pretty much right on. LANL employees really don't have that much intellectual freedom compared to what UC campus people have. DOE and LANL management really don't like it. Granted, we get more than what is allowed in corporate America, as I learned during my corporate experiences. Indeed, if the sponsor of this blog were working for one of my former corporate employers he would be fired immediately for running a blog analogous to this one.

My point from all this rambling is that UC really doesn't do much for us, other than the great pension blame. Indeed, UC, overall, has done a poor job of managing the Lab, especially in the last 10 or 15 years. It has allowed upper management at LANL to get bigger and more incompetent, rather than remove the offenders. How much of this bad oversight is due to DOE leaning on UC to force its (DOE's) ways on LANL is not known to me.

The LockMart option is not appealing either, for the reasons Brad gives. The bottom line for big companies always comes down to making money for the shareholders -- nothing else matters.

Maybe, unpleasant as the thought is, DOE should "officially" run the Lab without a middleman to blame when DOE screws things up. It already weighs in heavily in getting what it wants in running the Lab, so it effectively already runs the Lab and has for a long time.
If a new TSM would like a place with reasonable academic freedom, more than one year funding, a chance to work on stockpile stewardship, and decent management; could LANL be that place? If so, what should that person and their friends be doing now to ensure that LANL becomes that place?
I think it would be a great idea for DOE to take over manaagement of the lab. That way, salaries could be reduced to federal government levels, and the taxpayer would save a lot of money.
3:15 poster.

This is a good point. I agree.
If NNSA/DOE decide to Federalize LANL, something that seems to make sense on the surface, then I would recommend making ALL management positions part of Civil Service. This would include Group Leaders and Dep Group Leaders. Everybody else could come from body-shop contractors. I'm sure this will fix everything.
To 5/27/2005 03:15:17 PM and 5/27/2005 03:48:48 PM, this is a fabulous idea! Then LANL could attract the same "quality" of intelligence in its workforce that we have seen in the rest of the federal government to manage the nations nuclear weapons stockpile. Surely this would draw the creme de la creme of world science capability...maybe even up to the standards of WalMart, MacDonald's, and CCNS. What a savings the tax payers could reap!!!
While I love the idea of NOT working for a contractor, I can't say that the idea of working for DOE appeals at all. Brad, with all respect because I think your Physics Today article was wonderful.... this is a totally unrealistic model for a laboratory and would most certainly kill whatever scientific spirit we've got left. When was the last time you dealt directly with a DOE office? DOE is worse than LANL, believe me - I've dealt with DOE staff and am consistently amazed at the politics, inconsistency, and CYA mentality. What I want is a contractor who's a capable buffer between me and the DOE, who can manage that relationship so that I, as a TSM, am not frustrated dealing with yards of red tape and line item accounting and delays and safety rules and security regulations that are imposed on me by people who know nothing about my work. UC has shown it can't manage that relationship effectively. Maybe it's time to give someone else a chance.
Regarding putting LANL directly under DOE: This is nonsense. The DOE is full of room-temperature IQ people. They have made a mess of competing the LANL contract and generally screw up everything that they touch.

The Civil Service system is, for the most part, a seniority-based compensation system. Promotions are highly politicized. LANL has run a performance-based compensation system with some competence. Yes, promotions are too much influenced by the old-boy (-girl) system but that could be changed.

Going over to the Civil Service system would be throwing out the baby with the bath water.
I agree with some of what Brad has said, but his approach is typically Los Alamos and typically that of a scientist. Also part of the reason why scientists at Los Alamos aren't taken seriously by the political establishment.

"None of the above" isn't an option. You've gotta have a horse in the race.

And, Brad, you can't be serious about direct management by DOE except in the sense of "let's make the situation so bad that they (who?) have to sit up and take notice." It's DOE that is uber-mismanaging things now!

Reality has its parameters. You've gotta suggest something within them or give a really good reason and plan for going outside. Most here probably won't like it, but it's the road to credibility with the folks who make the decisions.
Read Brad again. He said take it with a grain of salt. The point is, DOE is a real,long-standing, problem, with no apparent fix. Senator Bob Dole, who had been a proponent, within months of creation of DOE, recognized a mistake had been made. Senator Domenici evidently tried, with creation of NNSA, to get DOE at least out of the weapons lab business. That hasn't worked; NNSA is not even "semi"-autonomous, but rather just another layer of bureacracy. And Domenici, though still interested, based on what he said in one of his recent visits to Los Alamos, hasn't been able to force NNSA to become what was intended.

To those I agree with on this blog, to those I don't agree with, and even to those who post crap, have a restful, but occasionally thoughtful, Memorial Day.
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