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.