Saturday, October 08, 2005

The Storefronts: A Clue to Who Will Win

First of all, let me restate my original objection to the whole benighted idea of privatizing Los Alamos National Laboratory. It is based on faulty assumptions about "failures" (unique to LANL, allegedly) in accounting, security, and safety that have occurred over the last seven years, and an even faultier assumption that the University of California has been "running" Los Alamos all these 60-odd years, just like it runs its campuses in California. The decision by the present Administration of the Federal Government to compete the contract is purely ideological and without objective basis, but it is a fait accompli--it will be done, and as a result, LANL will be different in almost every aspect, no matter whether Bechtel (and UC and other minor players) or Lockheed Martin (and University of Texas and other minor players) "wins" the bid. The benefits and pension plans will no longer be the same, no matter who wins; but more importantly, the day-to-day operations, including how science is done, will also change irrevocably.

I visited both bid teams' storefronts yesterday and talked at considerable length with both, expressing my concerns and listening to their responses. My concerns were: (1) How will the management structure (dictated by the business partners of the two teams, Bechtel and Lockheed Martin) affect the management of science at LANL? (2) Was the shutdown a mistake? (3) Is the "hiring freeze" (or "constraints" or whatever) the idea of the corporate partner on the team, and is it a good idea? (4) What will be done about the impending brain drain of retirees who will want to preserve their investments in the old UC retirement system? (5) How will the corporate partners lure new scientists into working at LANL, and what is the team's vision of the future of science at Los Alamos? (Another way of putting this last point is, what is each team's definition of "national security"?)

As to management, both Bechtel and LockMart will change operations for the better, of that I am convinced. But LockMart will likely encourage a parallel path for scientists to rise in rank and salary, alongside managers, with easy transitions back and forth. Moreover, the LockMart team emphasized the importance of allowing staff to transfer to different places within the Laboratory, particularly when there arise personality conflicts between group leader and staff member, or when the staff member wants to contribute to new and different projects. LockMart--sorry for focusing upon the two corporate leaders, but I see their roles as becoming dominant after the contract has been awarded and the rubber hits the road--was unique in stating their goal of making possible genuinely lifelong scientific careers at Los Alamos, rather than simply hiring to programs and money. They are proud of the general outlines of the Sandia style of management, and I must say that Sandians I have talked to universally like C. Paul Robinson, and they are generally supportive of the management structure there, because it is carried out in a very professional manner. Sandia managers feel their first priority is to enable their workers to succeed in accomplishing their goals. -At least most of them have this clearly in mind, and they are given training to make it work. "Making it work" means, to them, communicating with the staff, and not just once a year at raise time.

The principal difference between Bechtel and LockMart with regard to the shutdown was that Bechtel seems to be somewhat ashamed of their partner, UC, and its passive-agressive way of mishandling the shutdown, while LockMart was positive-definite about never allowing such a general catastrophe to occur on their watch. The anecdote was repeated, namely, that you don't give everyone chemotherapy when one person has been diagnosed with cancer. Both Bechtel and LockMart spokesmen distanced themselves from the present hiring freeze, saying that this is a local decision, not one imposed by either bid team. Demoralization of the LANL staff seems to be the inevitable outcome of any UC decision, it would seem.

LockMart seemed most proactive in their response to the impending brain drain of retirees, emphasizing their commitment to keeping people who decide to retire from UC whenever their expertise is essential to continuity of delivering LANL's national security objectives, including the basic science component. The most important component to this continuity is mentoring of younger scientists, and they pointed to LANL retiree John Richter's course on weapons design for young people at Sandia. Regardless of which military-industrial corporate entity wins the contract, there will be more focus on national security, but it appears to me that LockMart is more forward-looking. They and C. Paul Robinson talk about expanding the definition of national security to the understanding and protection of the country's infrastructure, the technology of energy conservation and reducing dependence upon imported oil, computer simulations of climate modeling, epidemics, and terrorism, and a host of other problems that loom on our country's and the world's horizon. On the other hand, Bechtel fell back on what seemed to me to be a defensive position, namely, repeating words extolling the glories of the past scientific achievements of the UC system. (I got my PhD at UC Berkeley, so these, of course, are stirring words to me; however, I see UC's lack of support of the Lab in the last year and a quarter, and my ardor wanes.)

The bottom line is, it looks to me that, if the storefronts are any indication of the performance of the two bid teams in their day-long prelim exams, LockMart has most likely won the contract. And (at least under the terms of engagement in this unfortunate exercise), from what I've seen and heard from the two teams, Lockheed probably deserves to win.

-Brad Lee Holian, Lab Associate

That other LLC, the one with the storefront hidden up on the hill across the street from TA-3 behind locked doors: well, it had a large full-page add that ran in the Sunday Albuquerque Journal today telling us all how wonderful they were.
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