Monday, May 02, 2005

LANL after Nanos

I retired four years ago but I still have a considerable stake in what happens with this lab, both with my financial investments in Los Alamos and in the fact my spouse still works there. If this place goes to hell so does our future.

Director Nanos did his best to address the problems he saw here. The fact his military style wasn’t effective doesn’t mean the problems he recognized aren’t real. Focusing on criticizing him diverts attention from those problems, and provides us an excuse to avoid seeing ourselves realistically. The signs that this lab is in trouble are unmistakable, and we need to get over Nanos and look at our future.

We need to understand that nobody is indispensable. LLNL can design and build bombs, they can diagnose our bombs as well as or better than we, and somebody else – SNL, for example, could do so also - by hiring only a few guys from here. In fact a fresh set of designers and experimenters with a few basic facts may be able to do a better job than the creaky old system at Los Alamos, hobbled as it is by the accretion of scientific shibboleths, engineering myths, and institutionalized resistance to change.

Recently we were offered the example of Rocky Flats: shut down in spite of there being no replacement in sight. Please understand that they don’t care - Congress on a whim giveth and taketh away, without reason or logic. It has been our Senators’ clout, not our scientific talent, that has held this place together but even they are getting exasperated by our inflated self-importance. Besides, so many scientists are retiring from LANL now that there is not going to be any science left to manage when Lock-Mart gets here with UT in tow, and their job will be like the job at Rocky Flats and Hanford: clean it up and turn it into a park. There will be jobs not for 4,000 scientists and engineers and 8,000 support personnel, but for 200 or so sanitary engineers and greenskeepers. The economic development folks will be marketing Los Alamos as a low-rent retirement community. The only science will be nostalgia at the Bradbury.

The last about 16 years of my tenure at this lab were spent in the weapons business. I was at the test site as that was winding down. That program had two basic tenets: (1) the laws of physics are displaced by received wisdom at the NTS, and (2) the nation couldn’t do without nuclear testing. Now the principal activity at NTS is not T but E: storing waste at Yucca Mountain. All but a few of those indispensable guys are somewhere else.

After the test program closed down, I migrated to hydrotesting in Los Alamos – where the tenets were three: (1) the laws of physics are displaced by received wisdom, (2) the rules of safety and security are displaced by received wisdom, and (3) the nation can’t do without Los Alamos hydros. Last I heard they’re trying to salvage what they can from DARHT, having basically sacrificed their entire experimental capability to get this one machine working, and it only barely does: only one axis can deliver a hydro shot, at a rate of one or two a year. Meanwhile I hear they’re popping off hydros at LLNL like firecrackers, in a completely contained modern facility.

There is no science done at this lab that can’t be done somewhere else. None. Most, maybe all, of the new technology in the nuclear weapons program is adapted from somewhere else. The days when Bradbury or Agnew could snow the military and Congress into believing that Los Alamos is magic and indispensable are gone. We have to compete with other institutions and multinationals and we can’t just rest on our reputation and watch our retirement funds grow.

Some guys have had a field day on this blog anonymously mocking those who have tried to suggest constructive planning activities, but you may want to pay some attention to their basic message: we are going to have to convince a budget-axing Congress that there is something in this County worth $2 billion a year, other than Bingaman’s or Domenici’s support on some logrolling scheme. Scientists who don’t do cleanup and want to have a career here need to be ready to help the next Director develop and staff serious core programs related to nuclear weapons that can be sold to DOE and Congress. That means playing well with others. That means starting now so when the next director arrives we have something for him to work with – a program and a team of willing workers.

George Chandler

1208 9th Street

Los Alamos NM 87544

505 662-5900 Fax 662-5777 Cell 280-3110

Who's "we"? Are you coming out of retirement?
George, I worked with you for years and respect your diverse talent as an experimentalist. Most of your message is pure wisdom. However, had you worked here in DX in the last year or so, YOU would have been one of the first people labled a "cowboy" and/or "butthead". Does that label make sense? Should it apply to you? Of course not. I guess you will have to take my word for it, but the work you performed in the last decade of your career is simply not possible at Los Alamos under Nanos. That excellent experimental work might well have cost you your job last year. The fact is Nanos must go. The real problem is that we are increasingly faced with a deal with the devil type arrangement. On the one hand, we can swallow hard, accept Nanos' "drain-the-swamp", "cowboy-butthead", "C-student", "tell Pete" garbage at face value and claim we are "moving forward" trying to "appear" to be compliant (albeit selling out our friends and our country and at the same time doing no meaningful science). Our reward for our lack of leadership, conviction and standards is a better UC retirement package...maybe. Or, we can object to the man, his lies, and his methods and perhaps appear to be arrogant in the eyes of the Congress and maybe the country. I choose the latter path because it represents honor and truth. If it cost me my job, which it probably will, so be it. At least I can look myself in the mirror each day knowing I was not just another coward looking out for my own retirement situation. Honestly, George, had you lived this situation from the inside, you would have been one of the first signers of the petition to remove Nanos. I know this because I know you have integrity. 2-Pulse

(BTW, George Chandler penned an excellent safety guide with the Zen title, "The TAO of Safety". I think it has an LAUR#. It really IS a good safety guide.)
George. Thank you for your very astute assessment of the situation.
Here is a post from another thread that may suggest why people might find some entries in this blog arrogant or rude:

"Frank Marble - that goes back. I remember having him as a prof as a grad student back in the 70's at Caltech. A PhD in engineering - what a poor choice of a degree in hindsight. The only people I can honestly recommend it to, are those from the lower to lower-middle class who are the first in their families to graduate and immigrants.
# posted by Anonymous : 5/2/2005 10:55:58 PM"
George. Thanks for your typically sage insights, especially "The fact his military style wasn’t effective..." Your wife's and therefore your future in LA are likely secure as GPN has no doubt provided lots of fresh work for Legal. The rest of us are shakier.
Dear George,
When you refer to "received wisdom at NTS" do you mean data? Is it wrong to place high value on data? If the data consistently disagee with the "law of physics" as codified in computer models, are we to disregard the data or are we forced to accept that our models are imperfect and must be adjusted to match data, even if the reasons remain to be clarified?
It seems to me that some people involved in the program on which you worked have a misunderstanding about what it takes to do that program well. In doing complex experiments, perhaps it is more important to get a thousand niggling details right than it is to be a "great scientist." I think that the same was (and is) true in the design activity. People on the periphery have the impression than science gets slighted and that all our problems would be solved through better application of science. People at the core of the design activity are more familiar with how long and hard others have grappled with the same problems and tend to develop a sense of humility about how difficult these problems are. In time they conclude that knowledge of thousands of bits of "received wisdom from NTS" is relatively more important than the so-called "great science" promoted by outsiders.
Thanks for offering your perspective.
To the poster at 6:44 am, I didn't know there were any "good designers" left. Or are your retired or on change of station?
Good sound analysis, George! If it is to survive, LANL certanly has to shed its profound (and obvious) disdain for the other labs and other universities and for anyone who isn't a PhD in the "hard" sciences, and begin to compete in the real world for its funds. "Playing well with others" is the key phrase, and that starts with the new LANL management team, whomever they turn out to be....
Not coming out - of retirement or anything else.

I know and feel your pain about the cowboy - butthead business. You'll never be able to do anything to Nanos that will make up for that. He's history, just looking for the way out. You take the initiative and push to develop a program that makes sense and fills a national need that Nanos' successor can sell to congress. Forget about Nanos.
Forget about Nanos.
Forget about Nanos.

Every technical creation has fudge factors, empirical adjustments, niggling details, whatever, and I do not deny the necessity for such especially in this business. What I have observed in the diagnostics/instrumentation business (and I suspect also occurs in the design business) is that a lot of the niggling details are carried forward by new generations who no longer know why they are doing it and are afraid to ask. We need to re-examine that stuff once in awhile.
While you make some good points, "Nanos did his best to address the problems he saw here" is going too far.

If you had dealt with Nanos directly, as I have, you would know that he had a penchant for making bad snap decisions based on no information. People stopped asking him questions in manager meetings as he would make up an answer on the spot, and you were stuck with it. When you tried to help him see there were better paths forward, all you got for your efforts was to be yelled at and threatened.

Nanos never tried to look at what the real problems were, and he never tried to work toward real solutions. The shutdown of unrelated projects in a lab with an excellent safety and security record just sent the message to our sponsors that they should send their money elsewhere, enhancing the probability of the permanent shutdown you fear.

My path forward is to put constructive posts on the running list of wasteful activities, and hope we will soon have a director willing to listen.
6:08, I was the one who posted that comment on another post. It was not meant to be arrogant or rude, just a personal opinion. It was a personal recommendation from someone who has a PhD in engineering and who has worked in engineering at several places over the past 30 years. People are free to seek out other opinions. In fact, I recommend they do so.

To get a perspective on engineering as an occupation, along with dire predictions of the effects of S&E shortages, how the US’ competitors have x times the number of engineers as the US, how not enough women and minorities are studying engineering and we don’t why, and a whole bunch more hand-wringing, I suggest the 3 articles below.

Arrogance? As far as my situation goes, it's tough to be arrogant when you're an expendable white male PhD engineer. Doesn't matter what school I went to, what I know, or that I work at LANL or anywhere else for that matter – I am expendable. Most likely easily replaced as well.

As far as where I went to school, I want to make it clear that most of the better engineers I have personally known have gone to "lesser name schools". Having gone to a "big name" school or even getting a PhD in engineering is relatively unimportant in my experience unless you are interested in academia. LANL is not part of academia in my view. Please see other posts on this blog for a variety of opinions on that subject.

I'm etremely skeptical of any claims of an engineering shortage and how there aren't enough people studying it - as in, where will the replacements for those leaving LANL come from, etc. There are plenty. On the other hand, if the goal is to make the engineering workforce, and LANL in particular, reflect US demographics by the numbers for social policy purposes, then shortages/surpluses by ethnicity/sex clearly exist.

Status? The comment about people studying engineering and their background is somewhat anecdotal. Engineering has been a way into the middle class for many from lower-class backgrounds willing to go to school and work hard, myself included. Regardless of their motivation. In the third article below, Dr. Wulf [President of the NAE] states, "Traditionally, engineering was thought of as a way to higher economic status. That was certainly true in my generation, but it seems not to be the case now. We need to stand back and ask ourselves why." Note he does not mention having an interest in engineering here. He also states that, " spite of the fact that starting salaries for engineering graduates are 50 to 100 percent higher than those graduating with bachelor of arts is not an attractive discipline." Appears as though 50-100% is not enough of a premium to get more people into it just for the money.

In my case I consider having gotten a PhD in engineering better than the alternative of working in a factory as most of my ancestors did. Having gotten a PhD, I would say I have gone from a lower-class blue-collar background to the middle of the middle-class, tops. More likely, I’m part of the lower-middle class. I consider engineering the ultimate middle-class occupation. Amusingly, the first article lists Doctors, Scientists, Teachers, Ministers and Policemen as having occupations with "higher prestige" than engineers among the American public. (As an aside, I suggest the next time the NAE takes this poll, they ask a question not about "prestige" of various professions, but about the "influence" possessed by various professions. I hypothesize both Scientists and Engineers would fall dramatically in the rankings. Perhaps that would help explain some of the salary discrepancy mentioned above as well as the apparent lack of interest.) Along these lines, I remember one of my well-known professors at Caltech telling us in lecture that he always told people when he traveled that he was a psychiatrist. He said he always got much more respect and better service than if he told them he was an aeronautics professor from Caltech.

Job security? The first article estimates that the growth in engineering jobs from 2000 to 2010 to be slower than growth in the economy overall. The report estimates that 365,000 engineers will be needed by 2010. It also estimates that if present graduation trends continue and only 2/3 of the engineers remain in the Science & Engineering workforce, 420,000 will be available. (I infer that 1/3 leave the S&E workforce to do something else. It is unclear why they leave and where they go.) The article also states the demand could decrease further if global outsourcing of engineering continues to increase as it did in the 1990s, as well as the number of H1b visas issued. Looks like a projected surplus to me.

Demographics? The first article also provides the following data. First number is the % of the US population, the second the % of US engineers. Non-Hispanic White 69.1/82.7; Hispanic 12.5/3.5; African American 12.1/2.6; Asian American 3.6/10.9; Native American 0.7/0.3. While there is no similar male/female breakdown in that report, the second report states "Women comprise 46 percent of the total labor force, but only 23 percent of the S&E labor force." A little bit of apples and oranges, but the reports admit that they cannot even get accurate data on the S&E workforce. If the S&E workforce is so critical to America’s future, why can’t the government even keep track of it?

LANL? I’m all for letting those with just a BS from “third tier” schools in NM become TSMs right along with post-docs from the “first tier” schools. LANL either intentionally or unintentionally opened that door 10 to 15 years ago. I assume they pay them on the same scale as well. It is my understanding that where one went to school is not a determinant in setting salary at LANL. Degree level is a factor, but not a direct one in setting raises.

As far as LANL needing those that have gone to the “best schools” suggested by other posts, I don’t buy it in general. LANL has clearly shown “impressive” technical credentials, publication records and so forth, are not required to become a highly paid manager or employee at the lab. There are HS grads making over $100k/yr as well as senior managers making over $200k/yr without PhDs.

I'll end by saying what I was alluding to in the comment I made. Unless someone has either an interest in engineering, which many immigrants seem to, or wants to get a good paying job even if they don’t really care for it, as some of those motivated to move up the economic ladder, there seems to be little otherwise to recommend engineering as an occupation.

References of interest:

L. Davis, R. Gibbin, Eds., "Raising Public Awareness of Engineering," The National Academies Press (2002).

S. Jackson, "Envisioning a 21st Century Science and Engineering Workforce for The United States," The National Academies Press (2003).

W.A. Wulf, "The Importance of Diversity in Engineering," in "Diversity in Engineering," The National Academy Press (2002).

NAP Website link -
I have a few problems with some of the
points in 12:25 post.

First LANL is very different from
other places in that they
in general need engineers without Ph.d's. LANL on the other hand in order to do the job needs people with Ph.ds in physic, chemistry and math. There are far far less people getting these degees in the US than in engineering. Additionly very few Ph.d's in math or physics are given out to people from the US anymore. By the way the TSM title does not mean anything. There are real TSM's and than there are the others with the title TSM. I think LANL should
really tighten down on this and
your title should reflect how good
you really are. There are a lot
of bad people at LANL and it is sad
to say a lot these do not have Ph.d's or are from third tier universities. Just make a informal survy and you will see what I am talking about. I am have no problem with these people it just that we should have a real merit based system.
Thanks for letting me know the TSM title doesn't mean anything. I'll assume it does at least serve a bookkeeping function.

I guess LANL will just have to up the ante to get whatever math, chemistry and physics PhDs are available. Probably have to give them a different title than TSM so we are all aware of how special they are.

On the other hand, it would be interesting to ask why so few are getting PhDs in those fields?
George Chandler's post is right on. He understands "the game" - understanding "the game" is what separates those who manage their lives from pitiful victims. Some disclosure here about me .....

Science educated, I chose industry over government labs or academia. I ended up fulfilling chemist then later, electrical and product engineering roles. I understood the game, and ended up in management. [At this point, ~ 70% of the LANL readership will label me "the enemy!"]. I still love science and engineering and continue to add to my own knowledge. [Of note, yesterday's 12:25:19 post is an excellent analysis regarding which education and career decisions they do, and, of the harsh reality that technical individual contributors general get neither wealth nor real power unless they either go into management or go outside of S&E.... but I digress....]

You work in a weapons lab, folks. Yes, you are scientists and engineers, however, what you do has military and geopolitical implications. By its very nature, people who known nothing about S&E will get involved - MUST get involved! The problems of the past 12 years at the lab have made everything you do political. If you can't stand the heat, then get out of the.... er, lab!

Personally, I sincerely wish that LANL does NOT get closed. I believe that we MUST have redundancy in our lab system - the calculus of - dare I write - exchange models, counterforce strategies and the like, utterly require strategic redundancy. To me, the question is not whether or not to shut down LANL, it is how to firstly correct the actual issues and secondly, and, in the short term, more importantly, address all the perception and PR issues.
I've always been fascinated by the unique demographics at LANL. In most of the rest of the world, a Ph'd in physics is worth about as much as the paper it is printed on. Here, it is a ticket right to the top. Weird! There is far too much watering down of the TSM ranks in recent years. I blame the lack of clearances; an active Q is worth more than almost any academic credential a new-hire could show up with. Demonstrating genuine talent is a thing of the distant past. Today's environment favors the (really) old boy's (or girl's) network. I find it interesting that the average age at LANL is something like 48, and that age has advanced from an average of 26 on the Manhattan Project. I, for one, look forward to the vast retirement projected here. Most of my students have more sense than most of my managers - they really do. How many students would need to have their email printed for them like the Director does? Finally, I love the Ivy League geeks with their multiple degrees. As a state student who always had to work against a curve that included people who themselves know how to work, I find the Ivy League prima-donna types often fill the bottom, rather than the top, of the curve here. Somebody needs to.
Outstanding, insightful post by George Chandler. One minor correction: LLNL is suffering mightily from encroaching civilization and enviromental whackos. They most assuredly are NOT firing off hydros "like firecrackers." Their high explosive testing capability is on the endangered species list -- they can't even fire firecrackers "like firecrackers." It would probably take three years and an environmental impact statement to fire a firecracker. Your other points are well taken however. LANL needs to "forget Nanos" and get back on track asap.
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