Monday, May 30, 2005

We are left with a Lab that has diminished our resource of talent

From Anonymous:

Sooner of later we have to realize that we can’t be the best at everything. Everything cannot be the number one priority. We can’t make safety, security and science all the top priority. This sounds extraordinarily simple and obvious, but LANL has not been behaving like this. We are trying to have everything, the World’s greatest science, the World’s greatest business systems and the best safety and security to boot. If we try to be the best at everything, we will be the best at nothing. We have to make some tough choices. The right choice can make our future brighter and better. If we choose wrong our future will be dim. I believe that our choices have been unambiguously wrong over the span of the last few years and we are currently paying the price. It is time to commit to a different path.

I find that it is good to start with some questions:
(1) What do we need to be the best at?
(2) What can we be great at?
(3) If we could choose to be good at one single thing, what would it be?
(4) What do we actually have a chance at achieving?
The answer on how to move forward can be found in honestly answering those questions and then making the necessary steps and changes to achieve those ends. We live in a system bound by finite resources (time, money, talent, etc.). Our resources define what is possible and good management is the art of the possible. We have to set the correct priorities and work toward them in a balanced way. If other goals are given priority over science, science will be diminished. This has happened without anyone actually acknowledging this. LANL has been driven to attempt the impossible over the past few years with disastrous consequences (keeping science #1 while making security, safety and business #1 too). We are left with a Lab that has diminished our resource of talent. There is no doubt that the last two years have diminished our talent pool.

The current state of the Lab is the consequence of more than a decade of focus on everything but science. Safety, security and business have alternatingly and repeatedly taken center stage at the Laboratory sapping the ability to retain scientific excellence as the key organizational characteristic. We are saddled with a management system that is ill suited to achieving scientific excellence due to both its structure and those who occupy its levels. Each passing year has seen an ever-greater disparity between the goals and motivations of the Laboratory leadership and those who are led. Many of those in management have neither the ability nor the inclination to lead a scientifically vibrant enterprise. Recent management choices have favored those who provide business stewardship over technical leadership. Others are simply yes-men (and women) who do not have the spine to stand in the way of the systematic dismantlement of a great scientific institution.

I’d like to visit each focal point in turn for some observations about how this Laboratory has devolved in the past decade. The emphasis on safety while important in many regards is not something I have first hand knowledge of. I work in an office at a computer; safety at work is not a concern for me. I know that there are many, many others who can speak first hand about how we have gone overboard with safety to the point that it has destroyed our ability to productively pursue our scientific goals.

Security on the other hand is something I know a lot about. A good example of how we have shot ourselves in the collective foot is the SCC building. This building was named after Nick Metropolis. I think this is a huge mistake; it should have been named after General Leslie Groves. The SCC represents Groves’ victory over Oppenheimer because of how it has divided and compartmentalized the Nuclear Weapons’ program. The design of the SCC is optimal to keep people apart and destroy collaborations. It was put together with the help of Lab management some of whom used security as a means to achieve operational control and power. We are left with their damaging legacy. There is nearly no bound to how tight security could get. There is also nearly no bound on how severely security could damage scientific productivity. The key is to make decisions that keep security concerns and science in balance. Too much security and scientific productivity and quality will plummet.

Lately we have been under the thumb of increasing emphasis on business excellence. Financial and project management are king. Scientific management is nonexistent. If one looks at how the management communicates the programmatic content upward, science has no place, its all budgets, milestones, earned value, and no science. Looking at how our programs are run it is clear that business excellence is pushing aside science. The most evident symptom of our institutional emphasis is the people comprising our management. I look up my management chain and I find almost no one who is qualified or has the tendency to provide scientific leadership. Moreover they have no stimuli to do so in any case. We are left moving steadfastly in the direction where science is dismissed from consideration. I am sure they would claim that we are still “The World’s Greatest Science,” but they aren’t qualified to say so. The point is that our science needs care and feeding, and simply taking it for granted will leave it diminished and hardly great.

My last comment will relate to science itself. LANL is two Labs (maybe three considering production). One Lab is the science lab with all the “great science” divisions. At this Lab, science for science’s sake is done. Utility for the programs of the lab is paid lip service, but is generally ignored. Management actively works to keep the science un-programmatic. LDRD is their god-given right. The only good thing the programs do is bring in some money for LDRD. Those program people aren’t scientists anyway, so moving some of that money to do great science is the right thing to do. The goal is to match the quality of the best of academia and all that is missing are ivory towers. The second LANL is the program lab. Here science is in full retreat and the hard-core program people want the scientists to get with the program of short-term deliverables and milestones. LDRD is theft from the program. The “great science” divisions are leeches. The goal is to support the program and get the job done. Scientific quality is meaningless and often counter-productive because it might cause a milestone to slip.

The writing on the Blog is replete with this divide. We need to bridge the gap if we are to survive. The “great science” divisions need to get with the program, so to speak. They need to honestly contribute to the programs’ scientific vitality while maintaining their quality. The programs need to realize that their science is lacking. The programs need to realize that they are too short-term focused and that the science is the programs is in dire need off revitalization. LDRD needs to be something that serves both and provides the Laboratory with a future where the great science gets done inside the program. It is all about restoring the balance. Restoring the balance both in terms of science as well as everything else that management has to do. Yes we need to be safe, secure and have good business practices. We don’t need to be so safe or secure that we can’t get our work done and more importantly get our work done in an exemplary manner. Our business practice and systems do not have to be great. I would argue that greatness in these other parts of our enterprise detracts from the only thing we should be great in, science and science of a particular nature, science in support of US national security.

Here are my answers to the above questions: (1,2,3,4) science in support of US National security. In my mind this primarily means the science that forms the foundation of our nuclear weapons stockpile, but also includes homeland security, nonproliferation, biosciences, energy production, and non-nuclear defense. It does not mean science for science’s sake or science that does not have a specific end goal tied to US National security. It acknowledges that this science mission means that there will be constraints on security, safety, funding and business practice. These constraints must be met, but never at the price of providing the US taxpayer with an adequate return on their investment. Our country’s continued security, prosperity and safety depend not on LANLs ability to be safe and secure internally, but rather our achievements in science in support of National Security.

I dearly want to step forward with enthusiasm and optimism, but we need to have a goal that is worth striving for. We need to move toward our goal in a balanced rational manner. The balance can come from keeping science the top priority while keeping safety, security and business compliant and competent, but no more than that. The rational part of the statement is keeping our resources and talent in mind while balancing things. The goal also has to be achievable and within the constraints of our available resources. Let’s be honest about who we are, what we have to work with and what everyone is willing to work toward. If we can, then the future can be better. If we can LANL will be there to answer the call when the Nation needs us.

LANL TSM
15 Years of Service

Comments:
"Those program people aren’t scientists anyway, so moving some of that money to do great science is the right thing to do."


Hmm, as a person who resides on the program side of the house, I still consider myself a PhD chemist, first and foremost. Even when trying to meet programatic deliverables, our Division appreciates and encourages fundamental science and engineering. We still bring in students, mentor postdocs and publish papers in peer-reviewed journals.

"The second LANL is the program lab. Here science is in full retreat and the hard-core program people want the scientists to get with the program of short-term deliverables and milestones."


Most of the program and project leaders I deal with are fairly reasonable and *try* to support science but you must provide a good business case as to how it benefits their program. They aren't going to give out money just because.....and yes, they want their milestones and deliverables met. Who wouldn't?
 
Nicely written, in particular the characterization of the “divide.”
However this divide is not a recent development.
The words would have rung equally true 20 years ago.
In a sense the tension of this divide between the national security
programs and science research is at the very heart of the Lab’s being.
And successfully managing this tension, for the betterment of both
“sides,” is a crucial requirement for the Laboratory contractor.
If either side “wins,” we all lose.

A LANL TSM
25 Years Service
 
To 8:56am
If your program and project "leaders" are reasonable and try to support science than you are one of the lucky ones out there. If your division supports and encourages science, you're lucky there too. I wish there were more program and line managers who modeled such behavior.

I cannot say that my program and line management deserve any of the praise you send yours. I see science being selectively cut from the programs and the line management ceasing to encourgage anything that remotely resembles fundamental science or engineering. Its all short-term program with no room for investing in the future.

However the idea that science has to couched in terms of a "good business case" is the heart of the problem. The two things are not compatible and trying to draw the management of science into a business model is absolutely contemptable. It will kill science and the Lab.

The other part of the problem is how the milestones and deliverables are defined. One might want to see these met, but from where I sit the milestone mode of management has been nothing but a drain on the long term vitality of the Lab.
 
As a Project "Leader," I have to admit that my time horizon is based on relatively short term schedules (1-2 years). While my focus is more on implementation/application, the things I am trying to implement are based upon scientific work completed more than a decade ago. I am very cognizant of that fact, and so I am sympathtic to both perspectives evident in this thread.

I don't believe that "making a business case" for pursuing scientific work is necessarily a bad idea, but I do agree that scientific developments/progress do/does not occur according to some master schedule developed by me, or PM, PS or whomever. I do believe that I can foresee payoffs from long-term investments in general areas of relevance to my project, and it is up to me (collaborating with the experts) to build a "business case" for making the long-term, high-risk general investments. Again, caution is needed because the customer rarely understands (esp. if they have only a business degree) why the schedule (and thus the cost) is tenuous. The scientists in the "big science" divisions need to understand this fact, and help their PL's where they can.

I do acknowledge that many PL's and PM's are ruthless and lack vision or patience. I understand why people engaged in long-term research efforts are constantly frustrated by this situation - because I used to be one of those people. The need to meet deliverables on schedule only aggravates the frustration. However, keep in mind that the country needs our products as fast as we can "produce" them (yes, a technical paper is a product). We should not let "better" be the enemy of "good" in our long-term investment strategy.

Another LANL TSM
10 years Service
 
I agree with this picture of the lab but I would like to fill in some details that I fear will upset some readers but are valuable nevertheless. First I will point out that this blog, at least, has a large number of readers and writers who prefer to be anonymous. This, of course, reflects poorly on our institution. More important, however, it implies that LANL staff members are fearful to speak out on other issues.
LANL “programs” are often composed of Research and Development or R&D. The big cash flow is, of course, in the D. The research portion should prepare for the development and, also, help with the decision whether to go ahead with the big spending. How many program scientists will speak when the research shows that the planned development is a waste and embarrassment? There is little reason to identify these many development programs that have gone forward against all scientific evidence. Furthermore, we have promoted the managers who signaled their displeasure when scientific staff tried and failed to gather their courage to make an honest judgement. Those are the managers that run the lab today. The rest of the world has recognized all these development programs for what they were. Lots of us know that it is these programs, not Nanos, not the press, not Congress that puts LANL where it is.
 
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