Jun 21, 2007

Bright side of lab cuts

Maybe this is our opportunity to move from nuclear weapons to energy innovation
By Eric Griego
Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Democratic Congress is proposing major cuts at Los Alamos and Sandia national labs that could remove hundreds of millions of dollars from the state economy and thousands of jobs. The cuts are due in part to what some see as a bloated nuclear weapons budget.

News of the cuts was greeted with near-hysteria at home. The prospect of two of the state's main economic drivers being slashed is worrisome, given that high-paying lab jobs have buoyed New Mexico's economy for a generation.

But could the cuts really be an opportunity? Could the proposed cuts to the labs be the impetus so desperately needed to finally change the mission of both labs to one focused on renewable energy development instead of protecting and developing nuclear weapons?

Conservationists and those who oppose continued nuclear weapons development have tried for years to redirect the mission of the state's two national labs in the direction of renewable energy. Sandia has taken on more renewable energy work over the past several years, but Los Alamos has actually deepened its nuclear mission.

The proposed cuts have put Democratic Rep. Tom Udall in the awkward position of having to defend Los Alamos' expanded nuclear mission - something many of his base supporters oppose. But for local leaders, nuclear weapons jobs, after all, are still good-paying jobs.

Meanwhile, state Republicans are blaming Udall, a recent appointee to the powerful House Appropriations Committee, for not doing enough to protect the millions that have gone to the labs for years. Instead of blame-storming, the New Mexico congressional delegation should do what Colorado's delegation did when the Bush administration tried making cuts to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden. The delegation worked across party lines to make sure the lab was spared of most of the cuts.

The best hope of keeping Sandia and Los Alamos off the chopping the block in the future is to diversify their missions now. While nuclear weapons stewardship and development have brought in billions to the state over the past few decades, it is a declining industry. At least most of us hope that our state's future does not lie in pushing for growth in nuclear weapons development.

Economist Joseph Schumpeter called such declines "creative destruction." As older industries stagnate and eventually die, newer technologies and innovations replace them. It is sort of economic Darwinism. To survive, companies must constantly innovate.

But does the argument apply to big public investments like national laboratories? Must they also evolve or die? Or can we keep on spending public dollars on outdated missions?

Most entrepreneurs were driven to invention and success not by being coddled. Most lost their jobs and had to find gainful employment. Sometimes the security of a large, well-funded organization breeds stagnation. Innovation usually comes from bare necessity: survival.

Maybe the shake-ups at Sandia and Los Alamos will be just what they need to start them looking at how they can be more relevant to our biggest national security challenge: energy security. The damage that fossil fuels are doing to the environment threatens millions around the world. Whether it is the potential catastrophic damage caused by global warming, the mercury now found in many native fish, the increasing birth defects or the dirty air from coal-fired power plants that has increased asthma rates in millions of children, we must change our energy mix as a society, or we might face the fate that Schumpeter has talked about in the business world.

This year's funding crisis at the labs might be remembered as the moment New Mexico began truly to lead the nation in the development of renewable energy. That's if our leaders in Washington push for the change, instead of clinging to big dollars that have supported our nuclear past.

13 comments:

Eric said...

From last night's town hall meeting questioners.

1. Where are the dollars coming from?
2. How can LANL compete effectively against LBL, PNNL, Oak Ridge, etc.

Extended discussion at http://workingatlanl.blogspot.com/

Anonymous said...

This is beganning of the end...Got House? The Mass Exodus is just about to began: Please respect all road signs, and stay in a single file, do not push or rush...stay to your right..(From a 1959 AEC Atomic Energy Commission Warning)Hee the warning..It's time to go!

Anonymous said...

Had the House replaced the 190 Million last night Ol Dominici could, might have been able to replace some of the other 120 million...in the Senate version.....but it was not to be. No way in hell can OL Rickety Domenici make up those kinds of numbers...The hit will be massive and the numbers in the thousands (sounds like a war report)...But we have been warned year after year, so far we've dodged the bullet...this time were gonna take some heavy hits. The dis-mantling of LANL is underway....Any one still doubt that "They can't shut down the lab types out there? If so ...good luck....and good night

Anonymous said...

LANL doesn't have to go away. LANL can reinvent itself and stand out, once again, as the premier scientific institution focused on solving real problems for the U.S. and the world. The days of it just being a nuclear weapons lab and little more are fast nearing an end. Our priorities as a nation have changed and the arguments for maintaining the status quo are no longer credible. But if the Lab doesn't come around to recognizing this basic reality, then it simply won't survive. But in my view it's not a forgone conclusion that the Lab is going to thrive or just wither away. That's up to our congressional delegation, Congress and the leadership we have at Los Alamos. Domenici was central to the Lab's past survival. Domenici being removed from office is now just as central to the Lab's survival because he represents the rhetoric of a bygone era and he's created too many enemies along the way to garner much support anymore for his initiatives. Not what some folks want to hear, but it's a fact. Eric the Great told me so.

Anonymous said...

That LANL will be able to convert to an energy mission is a wonderful, romantic idea, that almost every scientist I know embraces. However, consider the recent GTL Biofuels proposal that went down in flames. This proposal was a stinking turd, that was largely stovepiped by politically connected, largely uncovered staff. Rather than recruiting the best, most qualified scientists to write the proposal (ie those too busy doing science to constantly chat up management), those with nothing else to do but "network" were allowed to lead. After the proposal failed to make the first cut, division management sent
self-congratulatory e-mails around, expressing disbelief that such a wonderful proposal could be eliminated -- it must have been political! The first step for LANS to build a quality portfolio in the alternative energy sciences is to closely examine the GTL Biolfuels proposal, admit it was crap, and to acknowledge that patchworked pet political projects are a poor substitute for scientific vision. At the time, the failure of this proposal was just another in a string of disappointments. But with the looming budget cuts, its now a very personal failure for every employee at LANL. We simply cannot allow opportunities like this continue to pass us by.

Anonymous said...

"Bright side of lab cuts"? Well, on the bright side you'll have plenty of free time once you get laid off from work.

Anonymous said...

The nuke issue needs to be resolved by the Administration and both Houses of Congress, until then uncertin budgets, changing work-force numbers, and severe dow-sizing of LANL....So as LANL downsizes the harder it will be to justify large budgets for the once Famous LAb.......this latest Fiasco certianly didn't help matters and only added fuel to the already raging fire (all against LANL) we are seen as a un-disiplined lab...and maybe thats true, but we will pay for our attitudes with no more fun money.

Anonymous said...

Hey, no nukes then let's learn som chinese

shi shi - thank you

Anonymous said...

If LANL did some genuine housecleaning, the present amount of work could be accomplished by a lot fewer people.

The new LANS management has created a lot of new overhead positions. Why do we need 16 associate directors? Each needs a deputy, a chief of staff, hot and cold running secretaries, etc. Furthermore, the number of divisions was more than doubled.

Look at the job listings. Very few openings for TSMs and TECs to do actual programmatic work. Lots of managers, SSMs, ASMs, etc. on overhead. And, we would be better off if most of them just stayed home and collected thier paychecks. Instead, the come to work and make non-productive work demandes on the TSMs and TECs doing programmatic work.

Anonymous said...

The high functioning TSM is a dieing breed at LANL. Sadly, once the layoffs hit, the main target will be these same TSMs. Management is not about to layoff their own, and the support side will be able to play the discrimination card, much as they did with the '94 RIF. Also, laying off a TSM get you a 'two-fer' (i.e., big savings due to salary, but only one mouth to complain). If you are a TSM, try not to notice the bulls-eye target that is being freshly painted on your back by LANS.

Anonymous said...

lol i think the author of the novel that started this thread misses the big if not infinite picture. congress isnt concerned about our inability to make weapons, they are concerned about our inability to keep secrets. what makes you think that renewable energy research and development would not require the same amount of security, i tend to think it would require more. bottom line, from secretaries to consultants to the board of governors the lab has proved nationally that safeguarding secrets is not achievable. why should congress entrust sensitive work to us.

Anonymous said...

I have to say I agree 2:12, I think the TSM ranks are going to take a good size hit.

Anonymous said...

Then I repeat that the ones to go first should be those to blame for the mess we are in such as the moron who found the disk drives behind the xerox machine, the americium spreader, the aqua regia TSM, the laser eye injury, and all those resposible for the recent stream of security infractions. These are the folks who are still among us and who are to blame for Congress hating LANL and for the reputation of LANL not being safe or secure.