Jan 12, 2008

Departing Scientists Eye Future

ABQ Journal


By Raam Wong
Journal Staff Writer

LOS ALAMOS— Twenty-seven years to the day after he first entered the gates of Los Alamos
National Laboratory as a young scientist, Steve Smith on Thursday turned in his badge and keys.

"I felt like I was having my stripes ripped off today," Smith said that evening as he celebrated
his last day with friends over pints of Guinness at a local bar.

Thursday was also the last day for 429 other employees who left the lab with severance pay
under a money-saving work force restructuring plan.

That night, several of them gathered to sip beers, swap stories and share plans for the future
that included vacations to Mexico, exciting new research and, for one man, exploring the galaxy.

"I'd like to get into astronomy," said computer scientist Ted Reed as he clutched his retirement
gift— "Astronomica," a tome-like introduction to the universe.

"He's wanted to do this forever," his wife Jan said.

They celebrated inside the Quark Bar, the kind of watering hole that can only be found in Los
Alamos, with decor that included a chalkboard scribbled with math equations, photos of scientific
luminaries and a large chemistry flask filled with a green liquid.

"There's been a lot of great breakthroughs born over cocktails," explained bar general manager
Phil Kephart, who designed the geeky interior. Beer mugs in the shape of chemistry beakers are on
order, Kephart added.

Los Alamos announced last fall that it was cutting between 500 and 750 jobs for budget
reasons. Officials said this week that enough employees had volunteered to leave the 11,000-
person lab that layoffs wouldn't be necessary.

The departing scientists take with them years of experience: on average, they worked at the
lab nearly 23 years.

For many of them gathered Thursday, the cutbacks were just the latest hit on the beleaguered
lab.

Smith said the work used to be more fun before the lab became so bureaucratic and the
"whipping boy" of Congress and the media following every embarrassing security or safety incident.

"I hope things will turn around for Los Alamos," Smith said.

And if it does, Smith won't be far away. He's been hired by WorldScape Inc., a company that is
creating an "immersive theater" in Los Alamos and offices at the proposed New Mexico Film Studios
near Budaghers.

Surrounded by a 20-foot curved screen and standing on top of another projection surface, the
movie-goer will feel part of the scene inside the theater planned for the Los Alamos Research Park.

Construction of the facility will begin early this year. It will benefit from the company's research
and development collaboration with the lab and be open to both researchers and the public.

Dave Modl, who is also leaving to work for WorldScape, said he'll miss his colleagues and
research at the lab.

Modl remembered the sense of excitement he felt as a graduate student when he first drove up
the hill to work at Los Alamos.

"I got giddy thinking that was my job," said Modl, who worked on the kind of visualization
technology that will be employed by WorldScape.

Feeling naked without his LANL badge Thursday, Modl created a new one and wore it at the bar.
It read: "Will visualize data for beer."

15 comments:

Anonymous said...

Smith said the work used to be more fun before the lab became so bureaucratic and the
"whipping boy" of Congress and the media following every embarrassing security or safety incident.

"I hope things will turn around for Los Alamos," Smith said.

***

This bittersweet article made me cry. Yes, I, too have hopes it turns around someday. I just have so little hope, though, given the cards we are being handed. Even NNSA seems intent on wiping out LANL and turning it into something most of the scientific staff will no longer recognize.

Anonymous said...

"Even NNSA seems intent on wiping out LANL..."

No, no. NNSA plans to turn LANL into a thriving pit production plant. You don't need all that "science" crap at LANL any more.

By the way, the "cards you were handed" were to a large extent dealt out by yourselves. LANL didn't get to its current sad state overnight. At least two decades of complacency under UC which was widely tolerated by the staff of LANL are the real reason we got to where we are. The managers that existed at LANL were largely chosen from the pool of staff members who worked there. We have met the enemy, and he is us.

Anonymous said...

For the staff who have left, good luck with your future endeavors and your life post-LANL.

For the rest of the staff who have decided to stay:

On your knees, fools! Assume the position!

Eric said...

Scientists and engineers, who are often introverts, do not tend to get together to form teams, as extroverts do, in order to defend themselves.

Scientists and engineers, therefore, can be successfully attacked.

The attack 'works' until you need something that only the scientists and engineers can make - guns, artillery, weapons, devices to scan people at airports, nanotechnology, a cure for cancer, a cure for AIDs, antibiotics, etc.

So, a smart extrovert protects the introverts who make things that the extrovert needs - national security (?).

That self interested protection of productive introverts seems to have gone off the rails, multiple times, at LANL.

Just a thought.

Anonymous said...

By contrast to Eric from New York Times, January 12, 2008:

"Court Allows Scientists to Work at NASA Until Trial Over Background Checks

By John Schwartz
Published: January 12, 2008

A group of scientists working at NASA´s Jet Propulsion Laboratory won a a round in federal court on Friday in their challenge to a Bush administation requirement that they submit to extensive background checks or face losing their jobs.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in California, issued an opinion allowing the scientists to continue working until the question of their privacy challenge can be addressed at a full trial.

They had sued the administration over a new domestic security requirement that all contract workers at the laboratory, which is run jointly by NASA and the California Institute of Technology, undergo background checks and identification requirements. The 26 scientists and engineers filing the suit, whose jobs the government classifies as ´low risk,´argued that the background checks, which could include information on finances, psychiatric care and sexual practices, constituted an unacceptable invasion of their privacy.

The government, which is requiring the upgraded security review at every federal agency, argued that the contract employees be held to the same standard.

A lower court had denied the scientist´s request for an injunction to block the background checks; in the opinion released Friday, the court of appeals reversed that decision and sent the case back to the lower court.

´This is truly a vindication for these scientists and engineers,´said Dan Stormer, a lawyer for the plaintiffs. ´They´ve been loyal and hard-working and committed to science and this country - and they´ve been threatened with the loss of their jobs simply because they stood up for their constitutional rights. Any way you address that, it´s wrong.´

The government, Mr. Stormer added, had taken a ´talismanic use of the word ´´terror´´to overcome constitutional protections.´

The court´s language was strong, stating that the questions asked on the government´s forms for the background checks were so ´open-ended and highly private´that it was ´difficult to see how they could be narrowly tailored to meet any legitimate need´and there were ´absolutely no safeguards in place to limit the disclosures to information relevant to these interests.´NASA, the court ruled, had proved no damage that would come to the agency if it could not carry out the background checks.

Michael Cabbage, a spokesman for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, said, ´NASA will, of course, comply with any rulings from the court of appeals.´"

(www.nytimes.com/2008/01/12/us/12jpl.html?_r=1&oref=slogin)

I have a naive hope that this will effect the people at DOE/NNSA by ≈1% to change their security policy for the labs.

Trust and responsibility has to be restored, but not with aggressive use of drug tests, and polygraphs, or rude behaviour in general.

This abuse of power today (=January 12, 2008), won´t prevent 9/11 (=September 11, 2001) to happen, this clearly must be understood by people who thinks they are security analysts, if not, they are no security analysts, or quite frankly, no analysts at all.

Anonymous said...

Why is everyone who is reporting the number of people leaving the Lab, not counting the ~400 contractors(not sure of that number)that were laid-off in the begining of all this? They are going to hit us with another 50. many of us have homes in the area and families to provide for, too.

Some of us have been here over 12 years! Lets get the "real" number out there to the media, as to how many families are really impacted!

Anonymous said...

"Scientists and engineers, who are often introverts..."

Citation please?

Never mind, I found it in the Journal of Made-Up Generalizations.

Anonymous said...

JMUG is a very prestigious journal with a significant impact, especially in the Blogosphere.

Anonymous said...

"Scientists and engineers, who are often introverts..." Citation please? - 7:43 PM


Review the "tough" questions ask by LANL staff at all of the All-Hands during the last few years. I rest my case.

BTW, what ever happened to that LANL day care effort?

Anonymous said...

BTW, what ever happened to that LANL day care effort?

1/13/08 2:29 PM

I'm going to guess that 2:29pm is the same (and only) person who has brought up the day care question in the past year and a half. It's truly sad to see a seemingly intelligent individual continue to try to highlight another person or group's abandoned folly long after those with a true interest have let it go. The strength of your argument, if there were to be any strength, is not just diminished but non-existence because it's a foolish anonymous mention and because the issue died quite a while back when people began to shift focus on survival of their jobs rather than enhancement of working conditions.

At one time there were discussions about Lab-hosted daycare, in part because other Federal facilities offer it and in part because it was deemed to be one of the pertinent barriers to employee productivity. The issue has long gone by the wayside except for the mention of it here.

Anonymous said...

1/13/08 3:20 PM

Excellent post 3:20 PM. It is really sad about the day care at LANL. If we had a day care facility like every other lab in the DOE we could attract better people to LANL. A point that has been brought up time and time again is that so many of LANL's problems could have been avoided if we had better people. Proper daycare would allow LANL to hire better people so it would really pay off for the lab in the long run, not to mention that it simply is the right thing to do.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, remember how Kuckuck was dicking these day-care people around (quite impressive actually) and pretending like there really was a chance in hell to get one at LANL. I remember how he even said Mike took this issue very seriously. What a crock!

Anonymous said...

Actually, design of the day care center in an existing facility within town has been completed and construction start imminent. Approximate construction cost = $500K.

Steve Smith said...

Gussie & Pinky -

Here is my response sent to Raam Wong of the Albuquerque Journal on this article. I was somewhat disappointed with the result as they did what felt like extensive interviews with 4 of us who were leaving, the president of WorldScape, and many others...

I'm sorry none of you could make it to the party... we'll have to have one of our own at a later date!

- Steve Smith

Raam -

Thanks again for taking the time to cover the story and to bring your photographer...

I had hoped it would end up putting a more positive spin on the situation. I really do find that most of those/us leaving are doing so for very positive reasons. Most of us really do have "something better to do" and a lot of it will be supportive of the community in one way or the other. The community of Los Alamos has suffered mightily from the events of recent years and very little of it is deserved, especially by the community itself. While this separation incentive was handled very poorly by LANS in many ways that have become typical of LANL/LANS/DOE, the net effect might actually be hugely positive. Some very good people left LANL this round but some of us are dedicated to staying close by and making good things happen for the community.

I took what was essentially a 1 year sabbatical to Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory during 2005 to escape the insanity that Pete Nanos was bringing down on the laboratory at that time. I had permanent job offers there and in other states which I declined, using the sabbatical as a way of avoiding what felt like a need to flee a burning, sinking ship. My heart is in the mountains and deserts of the southwest where I was born, raised and matured. I also care about this region. During my career here, I have lived in Los Alamos, White Rock, Santa Fe and now San Ildefonso. I did not choose a career in the big cities of the East or West Coast 27 years ago, quite deliberately.

When I returned, having the laboratory handed over to as corrupt of a corporation as Bechtel, was quite disheartening and the last year and a half have mostly proven my fears to be real. My decision to leave at this time was a combination of the increasing dysfunction brought on by Bechtel, the opportunity with WorldScape and others, and the financial incentives of 9 months of severance pay.

The quote about LANL being a whipping boy didn't quite expose the depth of how much the media and others have conspired to make the lab look worse than it is. Many of the "embarrassing safety and security incidents" were only embarrassing or even 'incidents' because our detractors chose to make them so. Check a little deeper into our "embarrassing safety and security incidents" and you will discover what I'm tlaking about.

LANL Physicist, Brad Holian publicly debunked Pete Nanos claim (in Science) that "LANL has the worst safety and security record in the complex" but I never really saw anything that indicated that this message was heard outside of the scientific community itself, who barring certain professional jealousies were the choir to Brad's preaching. Public policy makers and the larger community seemed to never hear that and continue to imagine Nanos claim was accurate. After all, he worked for UC/DOE, he must know what he is talking about!

I was also sorry that nothing made it into the story about the damage caused by the privatization of LANL (and other DOE facilities) by Bechtel. There were serious under-the-table dealings leading to this and it is sad/odd that nobody in the press has bothered to mention it, much less try to shed direct light on it. Why are there so few references in the press to the fact that this reduction in force will barely balance the increased cost of privatization (profits + taxes right off the top)?

That was part of the reason I wanted to get Ian Hoffman's attention while I was in Berkeley in 2005... I could see it unfolding in the public meetings between UC/Bechtel/DOE that I attended. I am happy for Ian that he is doing what he wants to in returning to his studies, but sorry that he has not taken up the banner of investigation into the Bechtel dealings as seriously as he did the Wen Ho Lee affair.

There are big stories to be had about LANL besides the exaggeration of safety and security incidents and some of them may be much more important to the security of our nation by a long shot. Some important questions that are surely outside of your league or scope might include: Why has LANL been made such a negative target by policy makers at many levels for so many years?; Was the Bechtel/LANS contract for LANL (and LLNL and ???) really legitimate? ; Why was DOE/LANS/Bechtel so surprised when they discovered they had a budget deficit at LANL approximately equal to the profit given to Bechtel (LANS) and the State Gross Receipts tax on the now-for-profit laboratory. ; Why are virtually all US nuclear weapons related facilities now operated by Bechtel owned companies, especially when Bechtel is a privately held and very secretive corporation with a very bad track record at contract completion?

I know this all might sound a little paranoid, but just for fun, you might ask yourself some of these questions seriously and follow them a little further... that is what Journalism is about I think.

Your description of WorldScape's work might also be a little misleading. I assume you got the description of our planned work from WorldScape president Pete Rogina... who I thought you interviewed. From what you wrote, I think you must have misunderstood what he surely was telling you.

For completeness and clarity: I will be leading an R&D team in Los Alamos for WorldScape Inc. to develop and apply the same kind of virtual reality technology we developed for solving scientific problems for the training, education and entertainment sectors. We expect to staff this R&D team with 6 people initially, most of whom are likely to be local, starting with Dave Modl. Together, we have over 40 years of experience in computer graphics, scientific visualization and virtual reality. The facility to be built at the Los Alamos Research Park is budgeted at $1M and will provide many other jobs in the community in it's development.

The easiest way to describe the facility we are building might be as a virtual reality theater, but it is much more than that. We are developing a state-of-the-art VR facility for research, development, prototyping and demonstration of immersive imaging to be used in training, education and entertainment. Los Alamos Community Development Corporation intends to use the facility to show visitors the unclassified science being done at the laboratory, from the evolution of stars and galaxies to the potential effects of an asteroidal impact and global climate change, to biomolecular and nanomechanical structures, to emergent phenomena in complex systems such as the stock market, socio-economic-political networks, etc.

Thanks again for covering this story and I hope some of what I offer above piques your interest enough for some followup.

- Steve Smith

Anonymous said...

"I took what was essentially a 1 year sabbatical to Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory during 2005 to escape the insanity that Pete Nanos was bringing down on the laboratory at that time."

Mr Smith you sound like a cowboy who does not get it! You are part of the problem culture of Los Alamos.

Ok time for reality. Mr Smith, you sound like someone who really cared about the United States, New Mexico and LANL. Best of luck to you and glad that you will still be around in town. Thank you for you all you have done.

The damage the Nanos did will be with us for a very long time.