National Report: Broken Relationship Threatens Research Quality At LLNL


By Jeff Garberson


A “broken relationship” threatens to erode the quality of research being conducted at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and its companion national defense laboratories in New Mexico , according to a report by the National Research Council.


The relationship referred to is between the laboratories and their federal sponsor, the National Nuclear Security Administration. The New Mexico laboratories are Los Alamos and Sandia National Laboratories. Sandia also operates a laboratory in Livermore.


The management review was undertaken at the request of Congress. A study committee visited Lawrence Livermore and the other laboratories last year to take public testimony, much of which focused on the excessive governmental controls and high overhead costs.


NNSA’s security and safety policies came in for particular criticism. In recent years, they have been so intrusive as to lead to a “breakdown of trust,” according to the just-released report.

The report urges “NNSA, Congress, and top management of the Laboratories (to) recognize that safety and security systems at the Laboratories have been strengthened to the point where they no longer need special attention.”


Safety and security costs should be reduced “so that they not impose an excessive burden on essential (science and engineering) activities,” the report continues.


The report criticizes an ever tighter NNSA management approach that now has Site Offices next to the laboratories exercising “direct budget, regulatory and contract oversight, and administrative authority. ”The immediate result, it said, has been “increased centralization of science and technology planning and direction” and “top-down tasking.”


The Site Offices at Livermore and Los Alamos are “organized and staffed largely for monitoring compliance,” according to the report. “This reflects mistrust” and undercuts the “balanced approach” that is needed for maximizing “scientific flexibility” without sacrificing security, health and safety.


The report was particularly emphatic about the importance of high quality experimental work at the Laboratories and the negative role of NNSA in making it more difficult.


“Experimentation leads to discovery, and also provides essential validation for modeling and simulation,” the report stated.


By contrast, NNSA’s approach to management has become so formal and mistrustful as to undercut the experimental process. NNSA’s “checklist-based methods are demonstrably valuable for high-risk tasks, but onerous when nimble thinking and innovation are required,” according to the report.


The study committee was told by scientists, engineers “and some managers at all three labs” that “experimentation is becoming more difficult to pursue, and therefore less common, because of burdensome steps that must be completed associated with purchasing, safety checks and certifications, and so on.


“Thus, there is already some evidence that science and engineering at the Laboratories are relying less on experimentation, which has worrisome implications for the S&E (science and engineering.)”


The report went on to cite personal testimonials by staff at both Livermore and Los Alamos illustrating the damage to scientific quality.


A Los Alamos “senior staff member” wrote:

“When I started as a young postdoc…there was a social contract…’You will never get rich in science, but we treat you as adults, respect you for your commitment, and in turn you can pursue science and have fun.’ Today, this contract is badly broken….


“How else…explain the fact that today the signatures of (3-4 people) are required if I want to take my laptop…to work from home? I also need to write a half page justification why I want to work from home. If I want to attend (a professional physics conference,) I need signatures of (five people)…Where academic freedom once reigned…we have today a Lab totally driven by risk averseness. We are drowning in paperwork and regulations. I know of three world-class scientists just in my group, who left…because they could not work in this environment anymore.”


From a Lawrence Livermore employee “with over three decades of experience”:

“I have seen our efficiency drop by at least a factor of two over the last two decades, and the inefficiency accelerated after the contract change from ( University of California ) to (Lawrence Livermore National Security, the new for-profit contractor.)  The Lab is being micro-managed by (the U.S. Department of Energy, of which NNSA is an autonomous unit), and now the new contractor, to the detriment of this country. I worked hard, and I’m sometimes frustrated by the bureaucracy….It seems that concern about risks overrides scientific progress constantly. Often times, I will not initiate or take on difficult R&D assignments because of the unfunded hoops I have to jump through.”


The report cited anecdotal concern about the possibility that “young, talented scientists and engineers” might not want to work at the Laboratories, but it “did not find data” indicating that this was a problem. On the other hand, it pointed out, it is hard to be sure since “the Labs may be benefiting from reduced employment prospects caused by the current recession. ”As the economy improves, the report cautions, “The Labs should not be complacent about their ability to attract and retain staff.”


Some who spoke to the study committee worried that morale and concern for the public interest might suffer after a for-profit contractor took over management of the Livermore and Los Alamos laboratories, the review committee “did not see evidence of that,” according to the report.


“When Laboratory employees were questioned about heavy-handed bureaucratic processes, they could not point to their origin; that was true even for managers.”

The review committee applauded the broadening of laboratory missions into non-weapons areas, including work for agencies other than DOE and NNSA. This work makes the laboratories more attractive destinations for talented scientists and engineers, who bring a range of skills and talents that can then strengthen basic missions.


It is not, however, new.  All three of the laboratories have had non-nuclear and non-weapons programs for decades.