PAUL BASKEN, The Chronicle of Higher Education
For decades, the national laboratories at Livermore and Los Alamos, managed and staffed by the University of California, pioneered scientific breakthroughs in such fields as scientific computing, sustainable energy, and the human-genome initiative.
That tradition has been changing over the past several years, as the Energy Department shifted management of the labs toward a group of outside directors led by Bechtel Corporation, a private engineering company (The Chronicle, January 6, 2006).
Now even more radical moves may be afoot, shifts that could drive university-based scientists away from the labs, because the government is considering putting those labs under Pentagon control. Some experts who have studied or worked with the labs fear that change could reduce the quality of research. “They’ve already made it much harder for themselves to attract good people,” said Hugh Gusterson, a professor of anthropology and sociology at George Mason University who has spent years studying the culture of scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, talking about the management changes. A further shift, he said, “will just compound the difficulty.”
The Obama administration, according to a document uncovered last week by the Albuquerque Journal, is studying the possibility of moving the three national laboratories controlled by the Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration—Livermore, Los Alamos National Laboratory, and Sandia National Laboratories—to the Defense Department. The change could free the Energy Department to devote more of its research budget to civilian needs at a time when the country is seeking more sustainable sources and systems of energy.
Yet it also could be the death knell for a tradition of academic research. Sandia, based in Albuquerque, N.M., has an 8,000-member work force almost exclusively concerned with weapons and security. But Livermore, about 45 miles east of San Francisco, and Los Alamos, about 100 miles north of Albuquerque, have significant nonmilitary components.
Livermore, with 7,000 workers, also concentrates in fields that include the use of lasers in medicine and the potential use of nuclear fusion in supplying commercial energy. And Los Alamos, with more than 15,000 workers, also has research credits in both commercial energy and medicine, including work on AIDS, breast cancer, vaccine distribution, and disease detection.
A shift of Livermore and Los Alamos to Pentagon management would confirm the “ongoing evolution of the labs toward greater mediocrity,” said Mr. Gusterson. The University of California ran the two labs for more than half a century, until security concerns led Congress to find a private management consortium for Los Alamos in 2005 and Livermore in 2007 (The Chronicle, May 18, 2007). The University of California is now part of the Bechtel-led consortium’s management contract with the Energy Department. But the change meant that the labs’ hundreds of scientists lost what Mr. Gusterson came to recognize as a critical incentive—their identity as University of California employees.
Although much laboratory research is aimed at ensuring the functioning and safety of the nation’s nuclear arsenal, Mr. Gusterson said, his years of living in the Livermore community revealed a distinctly antimilitary culture.
Many work in T-shirts and jeans, and “go and come when they feel like it,” he said. “Many of the physicists at the weapons labs found it very important that they did not work for the military.”
Such attitudes may have cost the University of California its control of the labs. Congress began to question the university’s management after a Los Alamos scientist, Wen Ho Lee, was arrested on suspicion of espionage. Even though Mr. Lee eventually pleaded guilty to just one felony charge of mishandling classified computer files, while 58 other charges against him were dropped, the security concerns lingered.
Weighing Potential Consequences
A former Pentagon official, Lawrence J. Korb, endorsed Mr. Gusterson’s concern that moving now to place the labs under the military’s umbrella could cost the facilities some of their best scientists.
“I think it’s a bad idea,” said Mr. Korb, an assistant secretary of defense from 1981 to 1985. He is now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a policy-study group formed by John D. Podesta, an Obama-administration adviser who served as White House chief of staff in the Clinton administration.
Mr. Korb did not see any security justification for the suggested switch. He said he doesn’t know of any confirmed incidents of security breaches involving university researchers at the weapons labs, and he said the Pentagon has its own problems maintaining secrecy.
Another possibility, however, is that a move to the Pentagon could actually benefit university-led research because it would free up Energy Department resources, said Stephen I. Schwartz, editor of The Nonproliferation Review, the journal of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.
Between two-thirds and three-quarters of the entire Energy Department budget is tied up with nuclear weapons, and moving that responsibility to the Pentagon could “unleash the Department of Energy to do what its name says,” Mr. Schwartz said, referring to the search for sustainable sources of energy.
The University of California has not been told by the Obama administration about any consideration of transferring control of the research labs to the Pentagon and therefore has no immediate comment on the Albuquerque Journal's report, spokesman Chris Harrington said.
The university is proud of its work at the labs over the past six decades and would want to give the suggestion "a careful and thoughtful discussion amongst our leadership" if it were formally presented with the idea, Mr. Harrington said.