Friday, June 30, 2006

A good enough performance?

Los Alamos National Laboratory

A good enough performance?

Jun 15th 2006
From The Economist print edition

America's most famous weapons laboratory is under new management

ON JULY 16th 1945 the skies of New Mexico lit up and a thunderous roar whooshed across the desert. Los Alamos National Laboratory has been living ever since on the reputation it won from that history-changing event, the explosion of the first atomic bomb. But smugness can breed complacency, and complacency carelessness. In recent years the laboratory has been in the news not for its successes but its failures. A series of farcical events, ranging from secret data going missing (only to be discovered behind a copying machine) to false charges of espionage being laid against an American scientist of Chinese descent, led the then director, Pete Nanos, to describe his staff as “cowboys” and “butt-heads”, and to close the place down for seven months in 2004, to try to clean things up.

The result is a change of management. At the beginning of June the University of California, which had run Los Alamos since the days of the Manhattan Project, ceded control to a consortium known as Los Alamos National Security. Though the university remains one of the consortium's members, it will now share what bouquets and brickbats come Los Alamos's way with three firms that make a lot of their money as military contractors. These are Bechtel and Washington Group International, two large engineering and construction companies, and BWX technologies, a concern that specialises in managing nuclear facilities.

Unlike the university, the new consortium will be aiming to make a decent profit from its activities. It is also thought likely to change the emphasis of the laboratory from research (in a wide range of subjects, not all of them to do with defence, let alone nuclear weapons), to the more mundane business of making the detonators of nuclear warheads.

The consortium is making reassuring noises. According to Jeff Berger, its director of communications, “There is a popular misconception that we're out to change the lab's mission.” Nevertheless, many of Los Alamos's researchers sense a shift of direction. Indeed, quite a few have left. That, though, is hardly the point. The question is whether any change that does come will serve America's national interest.

Times they are a'changing

Los Alamos is one of three national nuclear-weapons laboratories that sit in the American West under the watchful eye of the Department of Energy. (The other two are Lawrence Livermore, in California, and Sandia, which has establishments in both California and New Mexico.) For years, weapons were their sole mission. Then the cold war ended and they had to find other things to do, as well.

Part of this change was a logical extension of what they had been up to in the past. Rather than producing new weapons and conducting tests (which America stopped in 1992, even though it has not ratified the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty, which bans such tests), they shifted their emphasis towards making sure that the country's ageing warheads remained safe and usable. Since they could no longer pluck warheads out of the arsenal at random to test by letting them off, they ended up building huge computing centres to process the complex “virtual” tests that replaced the real thing. Having built these, it made sense to use them for other things. That, in turn, led to the sort of diversification that might be praised in a commercial organisation where the main product was going out of fashion, but risked looking suspiciously like job-justifying mission-creep in a taxpayer-funded bureaucracy.

All three laboratories did this. But only one of them found itself in the newspapers for all the wrong reasons. Since many experts in the field have wondered noisily whether three weapons labs is one too many, such poor publicity was not clever.

Unfortunately for Los Alamos, some of its biggest critics are on the Congressional Committee on Energy and Commerce. During a hearing in May 2005, Congressman Bart Stupak chastised the laboratory, the University of California and government officials for years of mismanagement. Exasperated, he asked a pair of obvious questions: “Why do we have to have this place any longer?” and “Is there any really unique science that can only be done at Los Alamos and nowhere else?” It is that last point in particular that the new managers must address.

Regardless of which way you look at it, a lot of good “off-mission” science has been done at Los Alamos. Its researchers have, for example, developed ways to handle what is known as supercritical carbon dioxide. The result is an environmentally friendly solvent—certainly more environmentally friendly than many of the noxious alternatives used for industrial cleaning. The technology has been picked up by businesses ranging from dry cleaners to semiconductor-makers to cut back on the contaminants they produce.

The laboratory's expertise in energy technology has also been put to good use in research in the fashionable area of fuel cells and into superconducting tape for electricity transmission. This tape, which can carry 100 times as much current as an equivalent chunk of copper wire, may eventually be used to replace bulky transmission lines. And the futuristic computer centre, which allows researchers to manipulate graphical representations of nuclear data with their hands, as if physically flipping through a book, may also be put through its commercial paces. It is said to be the object of covetous eyes at Disney.

The laboratory's officials like to point out that its work on safety has many possible uses. In its quest to study how radioactive material might disperse, Los Alamos has concocted models for the spread of everything from infectious diseases to air pollution. City governments have tapped into the pollution expertise, while researchers from other laboratories have borrowed the epidemiological tricks to model the spread of AIDS.

Perhaps, though, the best example of how Los Alamos's largesse can help civilians is the Isotope Production Facility. This research unit can churn out rare and expensive radioactive isotopes for medical use—particularly in cancer therapy. Such a facility, officials argue, could not be supported by the private sector, because it would be too expensive. But given that Los Alamos needs it anyway, it can be turned to medical work from time to time.

It is this sort of diversity that many of the laboratory's scientists would like to keep. Others, however, have decided which way the wind is blowing and left.

Angel Garcia, a renowned biophysicist, has, for example, gone to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York state, where he will continue to work on the crucial question of how proteins fold into the right shapes to do their jobs properly. One of the laboratory's best-known computer scientists, Wu-chun Feng, has decamped to the Virginia Polytechnic Institute. Another, Erik Hendriks, has left for Google. And an entire team working in the burgeoning field of bioinformatics has formed a new laboratory at the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute.

The way that these and other researchers have been gobbled up by the outside world suggests that Mr Stupak and the other congressional critics have a point. Bioinformatics and protein-folding theory are both crucial to the development of biological understanding, but there is no reason to doubt that the researchers will thrive in other institutions. Indeed, an establishment doing highly classified work, with the security to match, may not really be the right place for civilian biologists, however distinguished they are.

The computer scientists are a greater loss. In the absence of real weapons tests, computing is at the core of the laboratory's work. If the übergeeks start leaving in numbers, that work will get harder to do.

On the other hand, from the scientists' point of view, this exodus may prove far-sighted. For there may come a time when even making the detonators of nuclear weapons might look like part of a rosy future that never was.

The lab-rats leave the sinking ship

At the moment, having closed the Rocky Flats Plant in Colorado, America relies on Los Alamos for the production of plutonium pits, as these detonators are known. Most of today's American nuclear warheads were made in the 1980s and have been deteriorating slowly ever since. Hence the need for new detonators. But Congress now wants to do more than just maintain the existing arsenal. In 2005 it authorised what is known as the Reliable Replacement Warhead Programme, to explore new ways of making warheads like those in the existing stockpile, so that they are safer, more reliable and less toxic. Los Alamos's researchers are in competition with those at Lawrence Livermore to come up with a design for these warheads.

The Nuclear Weapons Council, composed of officials from the Department of Defence and the Department of Energy, will decide later this year which of the two laboratories' designs is the winner. If the winning design actually gets built, and the indications so far are that it will be, a further reorganisation of the national laboratories would be almost inevitable. If Los Alamos loses the reliable-warhead competition, it could find itself in the humiliating position of being a sub-contractor turning out the Livermore design.

Despite the noises, a total shutdown is unlikely. Too many sensitive jobs—not just those of the researchers, but of the thousands of support staff at the laboratory—are at stake for New Mexico's representatives in Congress to let the place close. But the next year or two will see the old way of doing things tested severely, as the new managers impose their will and that of Congress. It may not be a test to destruction, but there will be nothing virtual about it. It will be very real indeed.


Full Story

I haven't seen a more insightful article than this. One nit to pick: the bioinformatics group that went to Virginia actually left from NCGR, which had spun off from LANL years ago. The key personnel going to Virginia never worked at LANL.
Totally incorrect. 12 members of CCS-5, Basic and Applied Simulation Science, left LANL in 2004 to form a new group at VBI, the Virginia Biotechnics Institute. CCS-5 was my old group at LANL. I was offered a place at VBI as well, but I chose another company to move to.

Looks like I jumped to a false conclusion.
I thought they were talking about Bruno Sobral who's got a big group (and big DoD grant) at VBI and used to be in Santa Fe at NCGR.
Not a problem. There is probably no one out there who could say how many staff and how many sponsors left LANL because of the shutdown. In addition to the 12 staff members who left, CCS-5 lost a total of $6 million during the first few weeks of the shutdown when sponsors refused to continue to send their money to LANL and get nothing in return for it.

I just reread the Economist story again, slowly this time.

I really like it. Without actually contradicting LANS spokesperson Jeff Berger, who claims that LANS, LLC does not intend to change LANL's mission, the article logically and calmly provides a rational basis that allows the reader to come to the conclusion that LANL and its mission will change significantly in the coming years.

The Economist has always had high quality articles. This one lives up to that reputation, and is right on target. They should do a follow-up when LLNL's turn comes.....

No article about Los Alamos could ever be perfect in all details,
but this one does come close to the mark on many points. I was
especially stuck by the closing remarks:

"But the next year or two will see the old way of doing things
tested severely, as the new managers impose their will and that
of Congress. It may not be a test to destruction, but there will
be nothing virtual about it. It will be very real indeed."

Yes, it will be real indeed. And probably very painful. I wonder
if many in the technical staff are fully prepared for the events
that are about to hit them? In the last seven years we have had
the Wen Ho Lee incident, the Cerro Grande fire, polygraph testing,
FBI targeting staff over missing hard drives, various accounting
scandals, the abusive Admiral Butthead, the 7 month shut-down, and
the RFP and subsequent reductions in benefits and pensions. Whew,
that was a lot of stuff!

As chaotic as all these events may have been, the "big one" may
soon be upon us. I have no idea whether life at the lab will
be better or worse several years from today. Will science be
given only lip-service, while "for-profit" defense contractors
squeeze cash out of lucrative production contracts? Or will
events finally start to turn around for the better, after many
years of heartache?

What ever comes our way, I think you'll be able to look back in
a few years and realize that LANL has drastically changed from
the LANL you once knew. Most "old hands" will be gone, and the
new workforce will have little sense of history about our past.
There is a bitter-sweetness in all of this.

So far, little seems to have changed with the switch-over,
but this is only the calm before the storm. The big changes
will undoubtedly begin to arrive after Oct 1st. Until then,
I hope everyone has a chance to rest up, relax, and enjoy
the lazy days of summer to their fullest.

For those of you who don't know how to relax, here's a prescription
to help out from Maria's of Santa Fe based on the well known
scientific K.I.S.S. principle. These are the chemical ingredients
you'll need to preform this little experiment:

* 1-1/2 ounce of fine quality tequila

* 1/2 ounce of Cointreau (or Triple-Sec for the el-cheapo's)

* Fresh juice from half a lemon

(1) Stir in a shaker and add in several cubes of ice.

(2) Serve in a chilled glass, preferably Margarita style.

(3) Find a nice, comfy chair outside in the hot sun.

(4) Drink (responsible) and relax (irresponsible).

Try it out, and report your scientific results here:

I'd be good to go after a couple of those.

For those who missed Secretary Bodman's all-hands briefing last week.... he explicitly stated his intentions to see employees of DOE contractors receive the same pay and retirement benefits as DOE federal civil service employees - so in the future the national labs will be able to attract the best and brightest by offering them less pay than and job security than either what private sector R&D firms offers or what the institutions running the DOE labs offer employees at their own sites... whoopee!! Maybe the national labs should be moved under NASA or DOD, where the feds and contractors run labs (JPL, Lincoln Labs) seem to have struck a balance between federal oversight and federal interference in the wellbeing/benefits of the contractor's employees at these labs... or Congress could just create a new Department of Science & Technology that would treat the national labs as Congress intended under the federal procurement laws governing federally funded research and development centers (FFRDCs)...DOE continues its destruction of scientific research in this country!

48 CFR 35.017

"An FFRDC meets some special long-term research or development need which cannot be met as effectively by existing in-house or contractor resources... Long-term relationships between the Government and FFRDC's are encouraged in order to provide the continuity that will attract high-quality personnel to the FFRDC. This relationship should be of a type to encourage the FFRDC to maintain currency in its field(s) of expertise, maintain its objectivity and independence..."
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