Thursday, June 16, 2005

There are beginning to be some good questions

In both this blog and Eric’s blog (, now that the non-productive whining and personal attacks have died down, there are beginning to be some good questions about just what science LANL ought to do to keep science alive here, what sort of projects might be more suitable here than in universities, and what sort of projects might attract and retain the kind of new talent the lab would like to have.

Let me suggest that raw counts of peer-reviewed journal articles are NOT the relevant statistic here. Academia produces floods of peer-reviewed papers on obscure and sometimes trivial topics that concern only a dozen or two people in the world, and will be largely forgotten in a decade or less. For LANL the relevant statistic is this: in how many cutting-edge fields of obvious significance to the world’s current major problems is LANL truly a leader?

When LANL was born, it was to solve a cutting edge problem of immediate and pressing concern to the nation: to build a successful nuclear weapon before the Germans did. That was a problem of sufficient scope and importance to draw the best minds in the country. What problem(s) does LANL address today that are of that magnitude, and would excite and draw today’s best young minds?

There certainly are enough challenging problems around, such as:

If LANL wants the public and the government to continue to support real science here, and if LANL wants once again to draw the best minds in the country, then LANL has to be, and has to be seen to be, working on some of the most challenging and interesting and important issues of the day. Notice the “has to be seen to be” part! You not only need to really be working on critical stuff, you need to learn how to market yourselves and the importance and relevance of your work as well. In this respect exposure in peer-reviewed journals may be of far less importance than exposure on the evening news or in Scientific American.

So to those of you pondering the future of science at LANL I would ask: what cutting-edge problem(s) of obvious real world significance is LANL currently working on that would excite today’s best young graduate students?. If you can’t find a satisfactory answer to that, then you may have identified LANL’s underlying problem.

Bill Godwin

Los Alamos may have a harder time getting accepted into the fields you mention than you might think. In the early nineties we were trying to get into global climate modeling with the GEONET project. The comment we most often heard outside the lab was "You guys will be around a year or two and then will disappear." We argued strongly that we had assurances from our management that we were in it for the long run. Then of course, management cut us off at the knees just when we were finally getting somewhere.

Since then you have had that wonderful seven month shutdown in which you slammed the door in the face of all your outside partners. Good luck on getting back in the game.
This is a great thread. LANL needs projects that seem useful to the average person. (PR) But, as often said with distain, those pursuits are applied science.

Maybe what we need is a set of LANL-of-the-Future questions:
As a scientist, what would you like to do?
Make a case, how is this useful to the world?
And, lastly, gasp, how would this sell to the public, our customers?

Given our science groups only ask the first question, maybe we need better marketing for what we actually do. Sandia does this much better than LANL. Since we don't appear to ask the second and third questions, we are seen as children in a big sandbox.
As has been pointed out in an earlier comment, UC apparently has no interest in work for others, as evidenced by the 7 month shutdown. Who, in their right mind, would send money to Los Alamos in the expectation that productive, valuable work would get done with it?
Yes,the shutdown was very harmful to LANLs image. Both that our management said we were so bad that we needed it, and second we were not meeting our obligations (which pay the bills). Plus our management did not realize that once you 'shut' something, no one wants to be responsible for turning it back on.

I that our managers and any others out there have leaned from our folly.
I like solar energy, because it is as close to free as anything out there. Why, here in the sunny southwest, do we waste the solar potential, and then purchase fuels for heat? Yet, for some reason, solar is not popular.

Perhaps the 'free' part is its downfall. There is not any corporate profit to be made.
Our management has learned nothing. Look at how they are handling the Todd Kaupilla case.

Total inaction.

If I were an outside sponsor there is no way I would send money here.
Almost everyone of these suggested areas are areas of current research at the Laboratory already and funded by various agencies. These are not new suggestions at all. The issue is the size of the efforts and the relationship to the primary mission of the Laboratory. The laboratory has been a multi-disciplinary laboratory for a long time and continues to be strong in these areas as well as many others. This is poorly recognized by those outside the lab who think the N in LANL stands for Nuclear. This is a perception that should be vigorously worked to change. DOE/NNSA doesn't seem to care.
Yes, for the example list I provided (illustrative, not exhaustive)there are apparently small efforts under way at LANL. But is LANL the leader in these efforts, and is LANL seen to be the leader in the efforts? I think not.

Aside from weapons resaerch, in what field is LANL the world leader? In what field is LANL seen to be the world leader?

Bill, is LANL a world leader in weapons research? You know something the rest of the world doesn't.
Like it or not, LANL is seen by most everyone in the media and the public to be the national leader in nuclear weapons research. Considering it was the birthplace of the atomic bomb, many in the international community see LANL as the world leader in nuclear weapons research. Whether that perception is accurate or not is, of course, a topic for debate.
I’m not competent to judge LANL’s position in weapons research, but I assume LANL must have some of the best past data available, and at least a few of the best people in this field around. Perhaps I am wrong – others with more direct insight into LANL’s weapons work will have to be the judge of that.

Any competent government with a long-term view would understand that maintaining nuclear weapons skills in today’s world would be critical, and would be spending a lot of effort to recruit and train new weapons designers to replace those that retire, and giving them new design tasks (even if the weapons were never built) to keep them sharp, and mining all the past information they could out of retiring weapons designers. From the outside, I don’t see much of that going on, but perhaps it is……..

I can still remember hooting at Nano's declaration that LANL would be the world leader in "Materials Science." Make that steel, aluminum, ceramics, composites, nano-structures, exotic alloys, etc. - you name it, and LANL was going to be the world leader.

What hubris! What stupidity! I'll bet that Carnegie-Mellon, along with many other advanced materials science labs are just shaking in their boots.
Clearly LANL can't be the world leader in everything, but in the topics mentioned by Bill, the Lab has been at the forefront of each of them, perhaps not all the time, but certainly has been one of the leaders of the field. I don't have the time or space here to defend each of them, but I know the individuals in most of those areas that are recognized as one of the world's experts and they have funded projects.
To solve challenging problems, you need money. Where will that money come from in a $2.2 billion budget with $60 million allocated for management fees and with GRT on the for profit side? That does not leave much money for research with the bloated management structure at LANL. Starting at the division level the following should occur: return group money to the groups, allowing them to budget for their specific needs; eliminate at least 50% of all DO staffs, including the chief of staff; make sweeping cuts higher up the management chain eliminating much of the 3rd and 4th floors of the ad building. Remove every one who adds no value to LANL's product - science.
The "Manhattan Project" of our time involves the detection of WMDs into
this country. Any significant WMD attack has the potential to send
this country over the edge and cause an economic depression. I shudder
to think what might happen to our constitutional freedoms if the public
truly begins to believe that their lives may be seriously at risk from
a devastating WMD attack. If there is one area we should be supporting,
it is this one (detection of WMDs). This could also involve work in
allied areas such as simulations of the scenarios and greater support to
our intelligence agencies in technology that might help in intercepting the
threat. Stopping a SINGLE WMD incident would justify the cost of the
National Labs for the next hundred years. It's time to start making a
strong case to Congress for support of this new mission. Some work in
this area has already been done at LANL, but it has not been elevated
to the level of importance that it rightly deserves.
Note again that the short list of suggested critical topics in my original note was just illustrative, not exhaustive. There are many more critical problems that would be appropriate for the lab, and I invite others to add to the list.

The problem with the development of solar energy is it is ubiquitous. Utilities such as PNM need to make money by billing for the power they distribute. They do this by generating electricity and distributing it over their transmission lines to their meters at your home. Or, in the case of gas, recovering it from wells or LNG terminals and distributing it over pipe lines to meters at your home.

Today, the homeowner can bypass PNM's meters by installing solar to heat hot water or PVC panels to generate electricity. In this case, there is no financial incentive for PNM to participate.

What is missing in this energy picture is LANL. The DOE should promote the development of lower cost and reliable solar components and systems. Our lobbyists should be Senators Bingaman and Domenici, both members of the Senate Energy Committees. They, along with New Mexico's Congressmen and Governor should be including development of solar energy for individual homeowners in the energy bill now being tuned up for passage.

Voters need to be much more demanding so their interests can be put ahead of the utilities. We must put a stop to paying the exorbitant costs of DOE's LANL until they start planning for meaningful results in conservation and clean renewable energy programs.

Hank Daneman
I strongly agree with Mr. Daneman
The point of LANL is not becoming the world leader in any particular area (material science, large scale computing, solar energy, etc). LANL is poised to be the world leader in the integration of science. In this era of increased specialization and narrowing focus, there are few places in the world that allow the scientists to explore another field, at the expense of producing fewer scholarly papers that nobody reads anyway. The strength of LANL is the multidisciplinary, collaborative nature in many of its projects.

Old timers remembered the time when LANL was to become the "AI Lab", then the "Energy Lab". For a while I guess we were to be the "Nano-tech Lab", although I do not know the physical location of such installation. We don't have to be number one at everything to be good. Indeed, we at LANL are in fact pretty darn good (way above mediocre) at a lot of things.

I like our old motto, "Science Serving Society". We do not have to be identified with any particular field to serve society. Doing science for its sake, or for the sake of fame and fortune, is not what I think LANL is about.

On a personal note, I struggled for many years to find meaning in my work. I even looked for jobs outside LANL. I eventually found meaning right here at LANL. You may judge me by my meager publication list, but I have other metrics. My career at LANL has been truly an adventure. Where else could I be involved in such a variety of projects, all with applications? At the end of the day, if the work still trumps the loss of incredible benefits, the endless paperwork, the extreme micromanagement, and all the other slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, I go to work the next day. Like I will tomorrow in spite of today.

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