Sunday, June 04, 2006

The mission of Los Alamos National Laboratory

Submitted by Anonymous:
____________________________

Doug,

In case you haven't seen this.

The author is unbelievably naive. The mission of Los Alamos National Laboratory is no longer, if it has ever been, a topic for discussion or debate. The mission of LANL is now something that will be completely determined by the defense contractor corporation that runs it, and DOE and NNSA. I suppose one should expect complete naivete from a university fellow, such as Swango. Unfortunately, time is only thing that will make the academics (and most of the staff members, in all likelihood) wake up to the new reality of what is happening to our national laboratories.

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Debate needed on Los Alamos' new management

Fundamental issues haven’t been discussed as lab receives new leadership structure, evolving role


By Dan Swango

As of June 1, responsibility for Los Alamos National Laboratory, which created the first atomic bomb and now conducts national security science research, will no longer rest solely in the hands of the University of California, which has managed the lab since its creation during World War II. Instead, it will be managed by a consortium composed of the UC and three industry partners, operating under a seven-year contract.

Given the lab's $2.2 billion yearly budget, the crucial research the laboratory performs in ensuring the safety and reliability of the nation's nuclear weapons stockpile, and the possibility that the lab may take on a new role in manufacturing critical components for nuclear weapons, changes in the structure of laboratory management deserve serious discussion and debate.

Yet the little discourse during the period before the new contract was awarded by the Department of Energy was dominated by the tired debate between pro- and anti-nuclear weapons sympathizers, not on the ramifications of the change in management. Thus, two fundamental issues remain to be answered.

The first is determining the proper missions for the national laboratories. During the Cold War, the primary mission of Los Alamos was to conduct research on nuclear weapons design. The collapse of the Soviet threat obviated this mission. Since then, new projects, such as nanotechnology and bioinformatics, have emerged. But the proliferation of such projects without an obvious unifying mission has led a number of lab scientists to question the fundamental purpose of the lab.

The change in management muddies the water even further by implying the lab will move partially into a production role, a change from its current status as an institution focused on producing top quality scientific research.

The second issue is the problem of how best to manage large-scale scientific innovation systems. There is no obvious answer to this problem. Oversight of national scientific innovation systems by different institutions, such as industry, the government, the military, public and private universities, and non-profits, has its respective strengths and weaknesses. The consortium that will manage Los Alamos going forward intends to combine strong academic science with sound management practices. If it can do so, it deserves close scrutiny as a model for future collaboration.

Immediately after World War II, Manhattan Project luminaries such as Robert Oppenheimer thoughtfully considered the proper role and structure of Los Alamos. Given the evolving nature of the national security threats the U.S. faces today, we must do the same.


Swango is a Public Policy and Nuclear Threats Fellow with the University of California's Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation.



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