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The University and the Laboratory: Can the Marriage Be Saved?

Editor's Note: In early January, the University of California, which manages Los Alamos National Laboratory for the US Department of Energy, announced the resignation of the laboratory director and his top deputy, in the wake of allegations of financial mismanagement and attempts to cover it up. This episode followed earlier problems including the Wen Ho Lee affair [APS News, April 2000 and July 2002 (see archives at apsnews online)].

As we go to press, the Department of Energy is reviewing the role of the University of California, which has been involved in the management of the Laboratory since 1943. In light of these events, APS News asked several prominent members of the Los Alamos and University of California communities for comment on the relationship of the two institutions. What follow are their own personal opinions; their affiliations are noted for identification purposes only.

Press Coverage Ignores Science

Recently-uncovered cases of purchasing fraud, lax inventory controls, and—most seriously—firing of two investigators at Los Alamos National Laboratory have led the Secretary of Energy to consider ending the contract with the University of California to manage LANL. Unfortunately none of the extensive press coverage that I have seen mentions the high quality of the science and technology conducted at this laboratory—quality fostered throughout the almost sixty years of the contract by UC. Let me describe some of the ways in which UC management has fostered quality and has given scientific leadership:

  1. UC has insisted that the science done at LANL, at its sister national security laboratory Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), and at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) be of the same high quality as that done on its campuses. This is monitored every year by an outside peer review committee for each division of each laboratory.
  2. UC has fostered a climate of openness and free exchange of ideas, to the maximum extent consistent with protection of classified information. Effective security and quality science are both necessary for the national security laboratories to carry out their missions.
  3. Staff members at LANL and LLNL assure me that being a part of the UC strongly enhances their ability to recruit talented scientists.
  4. UC has consistently emphasized the need for a strong science base at the national security laboratories. Given the inadequate budgets of the current era, there is great pressure to turn all attention to meeting short-term deliverables. Constant vigilance is required to maintain the science base on which the continuing effectiveness of the labs- and therefore our national security—depends.

The challenge of maintaining the nuclear stockpile without nuclear testing has placed new demands on the quality of science and technology at LANL and LLNL. Underground testing to maintain confidence has been replaced by more refined computer simulations based on improved theoretical and experimental physics and chemistry. Greater fundamental understanding based on laboratory-scale experiments has maintained confidence in the stockpile without the need for explosions with nuclear yield. But meeting future challenges requires the strengthened—rather than weakened—science base which UC management is, I believe, best qualified to foster.
William R. Frazer
Senior Vice President, Emeritus, University of California

The Jack, Not the Wrecking Ball

Over many years, under management by the University of California (UC), Los Alamos National Laboratory has developed an unmatched set of capabilities, and physical and human capital, for sowing, growing, and reaping scientific discovery and development. Los Alamos contributes across the entire technology spectrum, from basic scientific discovery to the actual manufacture of components that relate to its nuclear weapons, global threat reduction, and energy missions. We (with our sister lab at Livermore) are unique in the US national technology portfolio in the breadth of what we are tasked to accomplish; and there are unusual management challenges that go with that breadth.

Some of the American public has lost confidence in UC's ability to manage business systems at Los Alamos. Pete Nanos, the lab's interim laboratory director, has the perspective of both a Princeton PhD in physics and a distinguished technical career in the Navy. As a vice admiral, he commanded the Navy's high-tech acquisition organization, NAVSEA. He said recently, "My challenge is to jack up the science and replace all the management and business controls on the bottom, then gently set the science back down on a new foundation."

Nanos, and the rest of us in UC and Lab management, must respond to the loss of public confidence. If we don't fix things, and if the management contract passes from UC to a more industrially minded organization, then an irreplacable national capability will almost certainly be lost.

Like a university, Los Alamos adds new knowledge to the world stock; like industry, it applies that knowledge and delivers to its sponsors and customers. Unlike either, it is a highly integrated institution for the "tech transfer" that happens in the middle. Industry in general (and defense industry in particular) reprocesses, develops, and repackages scientific capital. Only rarely does it create or discover; it acquires and applies.

Attempting to describe abstractly the kind of institution that can best manage Los Alamos, we quickly see that we are describing, in essence, UC: It should be a great, distributed university system, among whose multiple campuses and research centers can be found world leadership in virtually every field of science and engineering. It should have a history of close interactions with high-tech industry, and a tradition of public service to the nation. It should have demonstrated performance as an incubator for new discovery and invention, and have the kind of intellectual credentials that will attract the next generation of outstanding scientists and engineers to its labs. It should provide means for cross-fertilization and mobility to and from its multiple labs and campuses at multiple career levels (student, postdoc, staff member, faculty).

At Los Alamos, the first-line technical managers are Group Leaders, (about 200 in number). These scientists and engineers are the pivot points at which the institutional balance between basic and applied programs, and also between scientific and operational imperatives, are established. What they tell us is that UC management of Los Alamos is not a distant technicality, but something that affects their ability to do their jobs, in hiring, in demanding intellectual honesty and independence, and in developing essential collaborations with the rest of the U.S. scientific community.

Imagine replacing these creative, committed managers with ones whose first loyalty is to a corporate structure or to a strictly operational "bottom line". Now, imagine the damage that would be done to the inventiveness and productivity of the Lab's scientists and engineers, and thereby to the nation.

Yes, Los Alamos must (and will) improve its business and operational practices. But better to do this under revitalized UC management, by "gently jacking up and then setting down the science," than by bringing in the management equivalent of the bulldozer and wrecking ball.
William H. Press
Deputy Director for Science and Technology, Los Alamos National Laboratory

Successful Stewardship Requires an Effective Partnership

The current concerns about business practices at the Los Alamos National Laboratory have brought into question what the University of California brings to the management of the Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore national laboratories. I offer my thoughts based on nearly twelve years as director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, from 1986 to 1997. The single greatest responsibility of these laboratories is nuclear weapons stewardship. Nuclear weapons remain in the supreme national interest. Effective stewardship requires that we continue to attract the best and the brightest, and because stewardship is an inherently governmental function, it also requires a special contractual relationship between the government and the contractor. An innovative partnership known as the GOCO (government-owned, contractor-operated), established during the Manhattan Project, became the cornerstone of successful stewardship.

Successful stewardship requires not only an effective contractor, but also an effective partnership. Today's focus is on the contractor. Clearly, Los Alamos must do better in its business practices. UC president, Richard Atkinson, and interim director, Pete Nanos, are dedicated to fixing these problems and to regaining public confidence. I believe that this is also the time to fix the steady erosion of the partnership that reduces productivity at the laboratories and threatens effective stewardship.

The most important contribution of the university in the management of the labs has been to create and nurture the environment required for effective stewardship. During the first month of my directorship, Fred Reines, chair of the UC Advisory Committee, made it clear that he expected me to uphold the tradition of world-class science at the lab. This tradition is key to creativity and innovation. David Gardner, then UC president, underscored the importance of intellectual freedom and intellectual integrity, which are especially important in a highly classified environment.

By example of its own tradition of public service, the University instilled in me and in our staff the importance of public service. The president and the regents expected me to discharge my responsibilities to place the national interest above all. They never forced me to choose between the interests of the University and the State of California on the one hand and the U.S. Government on the other. It is in this spirit that the lab directors have signed the annual nuclear weapons certification letter, have testified in Congress about their concerns related to nuclear safety and nuclear testing, and have engaged their counterparts in Russia to help improve the security of Russia's stockpile of nuclear materials.

The university brought its enormous prestige and significant clout to bear on lab governance. Its prestige continues to be a magnet to attract the best and the brightest. It has also used its impressive convening power to help us enlist advisors from its world- class faculty and from industry or government. The university's tradition of freedom of expression has enriched the national debate about nuclear weapons over the years. Its clout has in the past helped to buffer the labs from the vagaries of political pressures, regardless of what political party was in power at the federal or the state level.

At the time I became director, the university had managed the lab for 43 years. It was clear that it was in it for the long term. This continuity was important because the turnover of government personnel with nuclear weapons responsibility was substantial. For example, my tenure as director overlapped that of four secretaries of the Department of Energy-all of them political appointees with greatly varying backgrounds and views on nuclear weapons. Hence, we viewed ourselves as the corporate memory and as possessing full "cradle-to-grave" responsibility for nuclear weapons.

The university managed the delicate balance between competition and cooperation between the Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore labs. Under the university umbrella we had an intense rivalry, but it was one for ideas (as well as for prestige, of course) and not for contractor profits. I developed a deep appreciation for the importance of two labs operated by one contractor.

The university has been criticized in the past for not providing sufficient oversight of the labs. However, over the past 10 years, the university has increased its presence and influence on operations significantly. It created a President's Council of advisors with representatives from industry and a vice president for laboratory management. Together with the DOE, it developed a performance-based contract that includes measures for world-class operations as well as science. The president and the regents encouraged me to reach out to industry to bring the latest tools for improving quality and productivity to the lab. However, the erosion of the GOCO partnership and a lack of support from the DOE handicapped our productivity initiatives in the mid-1990s.

So, as we address the UC contract today, we should focus not only on how to fix the immediate business operations problems at Los Alamos, but also how to revitalize the partnership between the government and the contractors. Over the years, the DOE has modified the contract to progressively eliminate many of the features that made stewardship successful. It has become increasingly difficult to nurture world-class science, to take a public-service approach, to deal with the risks of nuclear operations, to provide a buffer from political pressures, and to provide the continuity necessary for stewardship. In February 1995, the Task Force on Alternative Futures for the Department of Energy Laboratories, chaired by Bob Galvin, former CEO of Motorola, lamented the steady erosion of the GOCO partnership. The Task Force made it clear that the broken system of governance was a major contributor to diminished effectiveness and productivity at the laboratories, and that both DOE and Congress must shoulder some of the blame. I believe that the erosion in the partnership has become more acute since 1995.

Hence, fixing business practices at Los Alamos is necessary, but not sufficient. The very basis of the partnership between the DOE and its laboratory contractors must be restructured to provide effective nuclear weapons stewardship.
Siegfried S. Hecker,
Senior Fellow, Los Alamos National Laboratory

Keep Issues in Perspective

I came to Los Alamos as a young researcher, inspired by the prospect of putting to use in molecular biophysics some of the remarkable technologies that weapons physics had created. I became part of a community that valued science and technology in service to a nation. Several years ago, I started directing my efforts toward helping to strengthen and build capability at Los Alamos for a strong national defense against biological weapons. After September 11 the anthrax letters raised the nation's awareness of the importance such a capability and, luckily, the University of California's weapons physics laboratories, Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore, were already working on the problem. We had developed capabilities in bio-surveillance and microbial forensics and were already active in transferring them to law enforcement and public health agencies. And the labs have made many other contributions after September 11.

Today, the University of California's management of Los Alamos is the focus of severe public criticism for flawed business practices. The UC leadership has stepped forward and is aggressively taking ownership and implementing drastic changes to correct the problems. I hope and trust that the progress that we make in the next few months will be considered in the light of a deep understanding of what the UC stewardship of the weapons physics labs has given this country, and, moreover, with an understanding of what is being asked of us as we look to our future.

The 60-year association of the weapons physics laboratories with the University of California has given the nation a nuclear deterrence that uses weapons that are strategic, minimize the use of nuclear materials, and provide the needed diversity for a strong defense. These labs were pivotal in creating the world's safest nuclear stockpile, and along the way established the safe limits for radiation workers used broadly through out industry today. By doing research into the health effects of the by-products of weapons research and production, we sowed the seeds for, and then participated in, one of the greatest accomplishments of 20th Century biology, the Human Genome Project.

One cannot ignore or underestimate the UC management and the strong academic values of these laboratories in determining these outcomes. It was no quirk of history that brought the greatest academic leaders together in 1943, under the direction of a UC professor, to achieve what seemed impossible; a nuclear bomb that would end a bloody, global conflict. They achieved their goal. After the war they asked the critical, hard questions about what to do with the power they had created. It was in the greatest tradition of intellectual freedom that Robert Oppenheimer engaged in a national debate and set the world on a course for nuclear arms control.

Today we are asked to maintain a safe and reliable nuclear stockpile without testing, to provide technology for treaty verification and non-proliferation, and to urgently address the terrorist threat from nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. It is perilous to think that this mission can be supported without the ability to attract and retain the highest quality scientists from academia, and to partner them with the best of the engineering laboratories and industry for what are some of the greatest science and technology challenges we face. The University of California has the required breadth and depth of capability to attract a critical part of the needed community, including those of us who began our careers thinking of things as seemingly unrelated to a nation's defense as the beauties of life's molecules, and who found inspiration in applying our abilities to a strong, science based national defense. May we all keep perspective as the current issues are addressed.
Jill Trewhella
Bioscience Division Leader, Los Alamos National Laboratory

Actions of a Few Shouldn't Derail Lab's Mission

It may well be that those who are considering transferring the contract to manage the Los Alamos National Laboratory to another entity do not appreciate the critical role played by having the same contractor managing both the Livermore National Laboratory [LLNL] and the Los Alamos National Laboratory [LANL]. These two laboratories have the responsibility for maintaining the integrity of our nation's-one might even say the free world's-nuclear deterrent. This to date is being done without the indisputable benefits of nuclear testing as was done in the past. In order to carry out this vital role it is absolutely necessary that the two laboratories interact very closely. This requires a continuous exchange of individuals, exchange and clarification of extremely complex computer codes, and the unrestricted exchange and use of very sophisticated facilities and equipment. Under the present single management structure this has been accomplished with remarkable success.

Those who are raising questions with regard to non-technical management issues at the LANL must agree that the science and defense work has been and is carried out in an exemplary manner. In no small measure this is due to the flexibility of facilities use and personnel exchange under the University of California management structure.

Compared with recent Washington D.C. government credit card abuse the events at the LANL are small events. Material unaccounted for at the LANL compared with the loss of firearms and personal computers by the FBI alone are insignificant.

One must be concerned as to what the real initiative is in considering separating the LANL management from the University. Clearly there is internal management restructuring required at the LANL and it has and is being done. This is a simple and clearcut management issue.

If Washington makes the move to place our nation's only nuclear weapons laboratories under separate contract managers, our nuclear deterrent may suffer a very serious setback.

Considerations of how personnel can be exchanged, facilities and codes shared, and how objective cooperation will be carried out will be a management nightmare. Unfortunately those who will make the final decision may to date have little or no appreciation of the details or expertise required to maintain our nuclear deterrent in these very sensitive times.

Hopefully they will educate themselves as to the real advantage and necessity of having a single contract manager for these two laboratories and will take only those crucial measures required to overhall the strictly administrative structure at the LANL.

The recent few stupid actions and lack of integrity by a few individuals at the LANL should not be allowed to cripple the activities of these two laboratories which have to date so well served our nation in their role of maintaing our nuclear deterrent.
Harold M.Agnew
Director of the LANL 1970-79

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette