Jul 8, 2008

Science and the Future of the Labs

Frank, I think this recent article by John Fleck deserves a top-level post:

Written by John Fleck, The Albuquerque Journal
Monday, 07 July 2008

It's become increasingly clear that nuclear weapons funding will not sustain national laboratories the size of Sandia and Los Alamos.

That leaves essentially two possible futures. The labs can shrink around their "core mission" - the nukes. Or they can expand alternative work. At Sandia, we've already seen a dramatic increase in what the bureaucrats call "work for others" - work for federal agencies other than the National Nuclear Security Administration.

But in an interesting interview last week, Dimitri Kusnezov, the NNSA's top science official, told me that "work for others" will never provide the necessary support to really replace the money from declining nuclear weapons budgets - the money that supports the basic infrastructure at the labs.

This is a real chicken and egg problem. To get the WFO funding, you need the basic infrastructure - the supercomputers and lab equipment - that the other federal agencies need to do their special projects. But the nuclear weapons program has always provided that, creating great leverage for other agencies' use. Think of Sandia's big Red Storm supercomputer - valuable to other agencies, paid for by the nuclear weapons program. "Work for others doesn't allow you to buy a Red Storm," Kusnezov told me.

To try to deal with this problem, the NNSA is launching an effort to broaden the science base. (See the announcement here.) The agency is talking to other federal agencies, trying to establish long-term relationships to support the labs beyond the sort of piecework that WFO pays for.

The devil here is in the details, and whether other federal agencies will be willing or able to make the sort of long-term funding commitments to fund the hypothetical Red Storm-style infrastructure at the labs. Kusnezov told me to expect announcements regarding specific agreements by late summer or fall. A lot of the labs' future, I think, is riding on how those deals play out.


Anonymous said...

"To get the WFO funding, you need the basic infrastructure" (NNSA)

Wrong. To get WFO funding you first need creative scientists who are able and willing to do this work. These types of people have been fleeing from the NNSA labs in mass as of late.

NNSA has no clue how to bring in large amounts of WFO funding to their labs and I doubt that most of these outside sponsors want to foot the enormous bills for the bloated management, unnecessary support functions, and the thousands of inane policies that must be followed to get any real work done.

Sounds to me like NNSA knows the weapons budget is about to be heavily cut back, yet they have messed up their labs so badly that it will be nearly possible to save them using WFOs as a form of financial "life support".

John Fleck said...

Frank -

Thanks for posting this. I look forward to your readers' comments.

anon 9:35 - The Sandia example suggests you're wrong in arguing that the NNSA labs cannot bring in WFO. WFO at Sandia has nearly doubled since 2000, and WFO is now nearly as large as DP.

But I do think you raise an interesting point about the need for smart scientists. Perhaps I should think of them as part of the "basic infrastructure"?

Anonymous said...


Do you know more specifically which areas Sandia has been bringing in WFO funding?

I wonder if LANL will be in competition with them for some of the funding?

Anonymous said...

For there to be any success in WFO funding at LANL, a number of things are going to have to change.

First, the bloated overhead must be reduced. No sensible sponsor is willing to pay those labor rates.

Second, there has to be some integrity in charging project. We all remember Admiral Butthead's shutdown when we had to stand down from doing productive work but still had to charge our time to WFO projects.

Third, there has to be some genuine enforcement of the rules for charging time. Too often I found people charging to my WFO project who had not worked on the project. When this was in organizations outside of my division, I could get the charges reversed. But, when it was within my group or division (because "there was no other place to charge these individuals' time") there was nothing that I could do about it.

Any bets on whether or not changes will be made?

Anonymous said...

Speaking of science at the Lab, does anyone have a list of the DR and ER projects that got funded this year - it would sure be interesting to see what kind of politics got played and if FOADS (friends of the ADs) got some $$$.

Anonymous said...

John Fleck,
Even if LANL were to get WFO money, LANS would try to send the money to CA. For example, LANS is trying to transfer the gas transfer systems group to Livermore CA. The gas transfer group at Los Alamos has top-notch engineers, but Brett Knap’s bother at Livermore happens to be without funding. Plus, LANS is doing nothing to stop NNSA from sending the B61 to LNLL. I feel like a baseball player under Pete Rose because my management is profiting off our losses. LANL must have an independent management team, i.e. Northrop Grumman, that will be our advocates for keeping and establishing new funding sources. As it currently sits, LANS is raping us and no one seems to care.

Anonymous said...

Both the management and staff culture at Sandia seemed more agreeable to the idea of taking on WFO projects. Perhaps this is partly due to the fact the Lockheed is running SNL.

Without management backing of a lab culture that values direct funded work more than the indirect side of the house, it will be nearly impossible to increase the amount of WFO work that is done at LANL.

As it stands now, the staff working on direct funded projects help bring in the money to keep the lights burning but take the risk of suddenly losing ALL funding when their projects end. This can be a frightening situation for TSMs which LANL refuses to acknowledge or effectively mitigate, and there is nothing quite similar to this situation on the indirect side of the house. Management and support staff simply take a cut of all incoming direct funds to pay for their budgets. If direct funding goes down, LANL's history has been for the indirect side to simply take a bigger cut of whatever money is left to help balance out their indirect budgets.

Indeed, the latest pronouncement from LANS about a crack-down on charge code usage may place those who secure direct funds and work off direct funded projects at even greater risk. They now have no place to turn when they need time to write new proposals, broaden their knowledge outside of their current projects, etc. If you bend the new rules, you may be fired!

It comes down to this: Why bust your ass to bring in WFO direct funding when it appears that this will: (a) decrease your job security, and (b) is not greatly valued by most of LANL management?

Until this situation changes, there is little hope for seeing a WFO renaissance at LANL. Many of the best people working on WFOs have given up on LANL and left to work at other labs that are far more WFO-friendly. I don't seen this situation changing anytime soon.

Anonymous said...

"LANL's history has been for the indirect side to simply take a bigger cut of whatever money is left to help balance out their indirect budgets."

You got it, and these fools think this can last forever?

Anonymous said...

You got it, and these fools think this can last forever? - 7/8/08 10:49 PM

Why not? It's worked very well for them up until now and management's own ass is in the can if this scheme ever stops working. They'll keep taking bigger and bigger cuts of any direct funds until there is nothing left to pick over.

Near the end, LANL will become a much smaller lab filled with lots of support staff and expensive management, but little else. LANL is already well on its way down this path. Our management to working staff ratios are absurd. The Galvin report of 15 years ago pointed this out as one of LANL's prime problems, and yet since that date the ratios have only become worse.

Anonymous said...

6:20 - the list is on the LDRD website... nothing too surprising there - same ole, same ole living off of LDRD.

Anonymous said...

Management needs to reduce the cost of business here in order for WFO to become possible. My AD charges 39% overhead on top of 38% G&A...and let's not forget that my program office takes 5% (and all also take more to cover the gross receipts taxes). The way I figure, for every dollar of real work, I probably spend on the order of three dollars. There are lots of programs that require great science. Unfortunately, I can get that great science form somewhere else, for a lot less.

Capitalism works. Perhaps we need to try it here!

Anonymous said...

Capitalism works. Perhaps we need to try it here! - 7/10/08 2:48 PM

It won't work here, as there are far too many vested interests who depend on indirect (i.e., overhead tax) funds that LANL's direct funded staff work so hard to bring in to the lab.

It's a crazy situation, but at LANL the direct funded staff who bring in the moola have far less job security than those who live off the overhead accounts.

If you're smart and want to help protect your job from a RIF, then you should get off of the direct funded accounts and find a nice management or support position at LANL. You'll be handed a job code and never again have to worry about securing any funding.

Anonymous said...

One thing that LANL needs to improve to succeed at WFO is the ability to identify talent and move people around as projects start and end. I'm not necessarily suggesting "deployed model" or any other particular model here.

We also need to reward people for finishing projects, rather than for dragging them on into infinity and beyond. Not currently a forte.

Respecting our customers' intelligence could sometimes use improvement. Following through on commitments... definitely.

But none of that will succeed without support systems (HR, ES&H, procurement, travel) that actually SUPPORT the technical staff, and a sustained, conscious, willful commitment to lowering overhead rates WITHOUT shifting the same overhead functions onto direct codes.

It's simple, really.

Anonymous said...

It will fail. Other federal agencies have their own problems. Worrying about the weapons complex ain't one of them. They have their own favorite sons and tar babies. This is a non-starter.