Dec 10, 2008

Loss Alamos

Talent leaving Los Alamos is a recurring theme on this blog, although I had not heard (or maybe just didn't notice) that they were going anywhere in particular - just "away".

John Fleck sent me the Frank Munger story below along with this comment:
I was imagining that if we had perfect data, we'd see an uptick in LANL people arriving at a number of institutions. Interesting to think what might be on that list, but Oak Ridge would certainly be on it. Not big numbers in any one place, but cumulatively....
Where are LANL people going when they leave? Is ORNL the top choice? Also, if anyone who left LANL is still reading this blog please report back to us. Do you have any regrets? Advice?

Munger: What’s that? Oak Ridge hiring from Los Alamos?

By Frank Munger, Knoxville News Sentinel

Ever since the brightest minds available gathered in New Mexico during World War II to design the first atomic bombs, Los Alamos National Laboratory has been considered one of the world’s premier research labs. Even today, despite the periodic security snafus, government contractor roulette and some of the uneasy adjustments required of a weapons design facility in the post-Cold War period, Los Alamos has managed to retain much of its prestige — an aura, if you will.

I don’t, of course, cover Los Alamos and wouldn’t pretend to understand the inner intricacies there or the mindset of scientists and engineers who populate the place (although I regularly get e-mails from the New Mexico crowd). Much of what I hear or know comes through the filter of folks at Oak Ridge institutions I cover, such as Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant, and that can be misleading.

Anyway, I note this in passing because there’s been a perceptible migration of personnel from Los Alamos to ORNL in recent years. Not a mass movement, not by any stretch. But enough to get one’s attention because in the past Los Alamos was hardly a productive recruiting ground for the Oak Ridge science camp.

I was recently told about 100 people had transferred from Los Alamos to ORNL over the past five years. The Oak Ridge lab’s human resources department wasn’t anxious to do record-checking over that time period and would only confirm statistics for the past year — when there were 13 transfers.

So, does this mean anything?

Well, I suspect it’s nothing of earth-shaking significance because scientists come and go all the time. The ability to attract scientists from a prestigious lab, such as Los Alamos, is probably seen as a positive trend from the Oak Ridge perspective. And it may reflect some changes that have taken place within the Department of Energy labs in the post-Cold War.

But mostly it’s about job opportunities and where one wants to do his or her work.

“We’re putting out job ads in certain areas, and high-performance computing — that’s been a real magnet,” said Dana Christensen, ORNL’s associate lab director for energy and engineering sciences, who himself is a LANL alumnus.

One of the major hiring areas at ORNL has been the National Center for Computational Sciences, and some of those hires have come from Los Alamos.

Los Alamos (IBM Roadrunner) and ORNL (Cray Jaguar) ranked one and two in the latest world rankings for fastest computers. The big difference is that Jaguar is used to open science, and that apparently is a factor with some researchers.

“They like Jaguar better,” ORNL’s scientific computing chief Thomas Zacharia said recently. He laughed when he said it, but there’s probably some truth there, too.

“They aren’t restricted on what they do,” Christensen said. “What they’re doing at Los Alamos is largely classified — very important work. But here they can do open source work, which is very important also.”

I’m reminded of an interview I did a few years ago with Sean Ahern, the visualization chief at ORNL’s computing center, who came to Oak Ridge after a stint at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory — another weapons design lab.

“It’s nice to be able to present your work in the open, talk to your family about your job and work in an environment where you’re allowed to bring your cell phone into the office,” Ahern said. “It’s nice to not always watch what you say.”

Senior writer Frank Munger may be reached at 865-342-6329. His e-mail is


Anonymous said...

There were a few who left in ~2003 to ~2005 to join the Spallation Neutron Source project at ORNL. They lost some profit when they sold their Los Alamos houses but they bought more house for less money in Oak Ridge and surrounding communities.

Anonymous said...

I am not aware that ORNL is a center of scientific excellence. More of a factory as far as I can tell. That said, ORNL may be more of a scientific institution than LANL has become.

Anonymous said...

My friends and I are interested in working at ORNL, but I have not seen many job adds listed on their website. If ORNL wants some weapon scientists/engineers, then please get the word out, because we want off the boat before it sinks.

Anonymous said...

We just had one YSM leave our group for Sandia and the other on his way for Academics.

Anonymous said...

Three TSMs have left my group for ORNL in the last 18 months.

Anonymous said...

For 2008, I know one person who went to ORNL, one to Google, four to
Universties in the US, one to a University in Europe. I know of two people have are leaving for professorship postions in 2009 but have not made it official. I also know 4 people that will be looking for the first time this year.

Anonymous said...

We've had about 10% of the TSMs in my group leave during the last 12 months, mostly to DOE (non-NNSA) labs. These were not SSP folks, but just mid-level staff who felt beaten down and were ready to give up on LANL. If the housing market was any better, I'm pretty sure another 40% of my group would quickly exit LANL. Morale is extremely poor.

Funny things is, most of the staff who left during this last year continue to show up in the LANL database as current employees. Because of this, you can never be sure who still works here and who has left. It's strange that LANS would leave the lab's employee listings so out of date.

Anonymous said...

I left Los Alamos for NREL in Colorado. After seeing the change in priorities in the world and US in the past year, I no longer have any regrets. I know of three other TSMs who left Los Alamos and have come up here in the past year. NREL is hiring and is expected to double its size in the next five years. They are looking for solid state physicists, material scientists, chemists, computer scientists and electrical engineers.

Anonymous said...

LANL is currently being sucked dry of the remaining scientific expertise by other DOE labs and academia. Bechtel will soon be left with a bunch of Safety Engineers, support people, plus lots and lots of highly paid managers. However, don't fret, because that is exactly what Bechtel wants to see at LANL. It's more profitable this way and makes LANL easier to manage (which then makes NNSA look good).

Just look at the 88% score that LANS recieved from NNSA for FY08 management. NNSA is very happy. It's up from 81% from FY07. It will be even higher next year, trust me. And here is a rough means to measure the scientific decline at LANL: (100% - NNSA LANS Score).

As Sig mentioned to Congress last Spring, LANL has become totally risk adverse under the privatized "for-profit" management and it is choking off science at both LANL and LLNL. No good scientist in his right mind would want to come and work here any longer.

Anonymous said...

Any scientists who remain at LANL and aren't yet looking for a job outside of the lab soon will be.

Just give it another year or two and throw in a some big budget cuts, Congressional neglect, lower morale induce by Bechtel's management, plus some significant layoffs... all while the DOE energy labs get flooded with new research money and lots of good press about their energy research.

The lure will become irresistible.

Anonymous said...

LANS big plans to hook LANL's wagon to RRW, plutonium science and building pits isn't looking too bright these days.

Anonymous said...

ORNL is doing a good job of attracting people in computing. I can think of four people off the top of my head that went there in the last couple of years, and know a similar number who had the opportunity to but chose to go elsewhere when they left LANL. DOE has been pretty good about funding computing at ORNL, which has made it attractive.

Anonymous said...

It's not just TSMs who leave the Lab but also some of us SSMs who were tired of the lack of leadership, vision and comittment from upper management. I left in 2007 and have not looked back. BTW, Oak Ridge offered more reasons ($$$) to come here than LANL did in their counter offer/promotion to keep me.

Anonymous said...

Good SSMs leaving? Heck, I've even seen some pleasant and very hard working low level secretaries flee from this place.

It's become a most unpleasant and difficult institution at which to get real work done. LANS upper level management continues to be in complete denial about what is happening and, even more amazing, NNSA continues to raise LANS' fee scores with each passing year.

Anonymous said...

LANL is a nice target for other labs. Low morale, very poor financial outlook. For senior management - if you don't admit there's a problem, then it's hard to deal with it.

Anonymous said...

Who is best? Well DUH - I am best - but I left! :-)

Anonymous said...

"Who is best? Well DUH - I am best - but I left! :-)" (5:00 PM)

And we miss you dearly, Anonymous!

Anonymous said...

"For senior management - if you don't admit there's a problem, then it's hard to deal with it." - 1:36 PM

Note to 1:36 PM, senior level management does know about it but they don't care. They see this situation as a solution to LANL's ongoing budget problems.

Whenever research staff leave the lab there is less pressure on the shrinking LANL budgets. I'm not attempting to be sarcastic about this subject. They really do feel this way in many parts of LANS upper management. In some cases, they believe the people who leave can be replaced with cheaper new hires and post docs.

Anonymous said...

Would anyone who recently left LANL for places like ORNL or PNNL care to let us know what you think of your new lab environment and employer?

Anonymous said...

Speaking of the low morale at Los Alamos, what ever happened to the morale survey that LANS paid University of Oklahoma to conduct? Why do you suppose that LANS never published the results?

Anonymous said...

"Why do you suppose that LANS never published the results?" - 7:57 AM

It's probably considered LANS 'proprietary information'. Can't let our competitors know who badly the morale has sunk, else they will recruit away what's left of LANL science. It could also harm the LANS performance scores given out by NNSA.