Lab Discovers New Ways to Make Bad CallsAlan P. Zelicoff, MD
It’s been a couple of very tough months for Sandia Labs with worry over next year’s budget and even New Mexico’s own Congressional delegation warning that cuts to previously invincible largesse are a virtual certainty. That means layoffs and associated economic impacts to the community, further blows to morale at Sandia, and deepening uncertainty about its future mission.
But most of these troubles are of Sandia’s own making as a few items emerging from bureaucratic obscurity are now making clear.
Last week, Sandia settled the wrongful dismissal lawsuit brought by Shawn Carpenter, a talented young computer security expert who discovered hacking into Sandia, Lockheed-Martin and then US Army and FBI computers. Sandia management, in what it later argued in court as its “responsibility to taxpayers” told Carpenter to stop his countermeasures at Sandia’s fence. Carpenter, noting that he was following Sandia’s motto of “Exceptional Service in the National Interest” ignored management timidity and saved countless terabytes of data from falling into the wrong hands, but was fired nonetheless. Against all odds Carpenter prevailed in court winning a $5 million judgment.
With infinite legal resources – footed by taxpayers and with no public accountability – Sandia had already appealed the case, hiring the most expensive law firm in Washington. If nothing else, they could outspend Carpenter and drag the legal wrangling well into the next decade. So why would Sandia settle?
There is only one logical explanation: Carpenter’s case is the least of the lab’s many troubles.
First, there are the lies. Commenting on Carpenter decision in the “Lab News” Sandia president Tom Hunter stated that while appealing the case, “[t]here has been no payment of any penalty”. That’s dead wrong. Massive legal bills aside, after it’s loss in district court, Sandia was required to post a surety bond to cover $5.8 million in potential future awards to Carpenter and has been paying 15% interest since. Do the math and the payments come to nearly $60,000 a month. No penalty? Please. Even at Sandia, that’s real money.
Next, there are regulatory compliance problems. On August 19th, the Small Business Administration reviewed Sandia’s conformity with Public Law 95-507 which codifies Federal requirements for subcontracting with small businesses, especially those owned by women, veterans and minority groups, including mandatory percentages. Sandia flunked and refuses to release the report, hardly the stuff of exceptional service.
Then there are the business practices of the lab. Just a month ago Sandia admitted the failure of its highly touted technical-transfer program by “bundling” its products with that of other DOE labs through Technology Ventures Corporation, the costly venue Sandia has unsuccessfully used to market its technologies to private business. Does anyone seriously believe that real businesses will have an easier time deciphering the value of “bundles” of obscure technologies multiplied fourfold?
Next month, trial begins in $200 million lawsuit against Sandia filed by Nanodetex, a spin-off firm that alleges it was given exclusive rights to transform a key piece of Sandia technology for detecting the presence of toxins from bench-top prototype to a real-world tool for law enforcement and emergency response. But it seems that Sandia failed to deliver critical computer code as specified in the contract. It also tried to sell the same technology to another company.
Sandia denies the charges of course. But if the evidence of recent reckless decision-making is any indication of management’s style, I’d place my bet on Nanodetex.
And then just last Friday, Sandia decided to close its technical library. Hard as it is to believe, the once-premier engineering and science laboratory in the US government will no longer have books, journals, and professional librarians on staff. Instead, it’ll be left to individual scientists to do online searching, even though anyone who does serious research depends on assistance from bona fide masters of library science. Virtually no proceedings of scientific meetings published before 1995 are – or ever will be – on the Internet. It’s as if Princeton and Stanford closed their unique collections and told their faculty that they’re on their own. But they wouldn’t, which is why other institutions remain in high esteem, continually attract new talent and are garnering an ever larger share of national security work that used to be the exclusive domain of the DOE labs.
The lab justifies the library closure as part of budgetary prudence which expends less than 0.2% of lab’s budget. That much could easily be saved by eliminating just 10 managers from the hundreds who occupy 5 layers of supervisory bureaucracy.
And perhaps therein begins the solution: firing the entirety of the top few tiers of managers and replacing them with professionals whose pay depends on fulfilling clear goals that are openly published for public review.