Congressional Testimony Reinforces Picture Of Damage To Labs from Federal Micromanagement

 

By Jeff Garberson

 

Critical Congressional testimony last week strongly reinforced concerns expressed only two days earlier in a national report about the damage that federal micromanagement is inflicting on the nation’s three national security laboratories, including Lawrence Livermore.

 

The testimony was delivered to a subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee by several former laboratory directors, including Livermore’s George Miller and Michael Anastasio.

 

The national report, from a unit of the National Academy of Science, said that the scientific capabilities of the Labs are being seriously undermined by overly prescriptive federal management practices.

 

In testimony, the former directors made the point even more forcefully.

 

Nearly all the criticism was directed at the National Nuclear Security Agency (NNSA), a semi-autonomous branch of the U.S. Department of Energy created in 2000 in order to give more specific management attention to DOE's national security responsibilities.

 

Whether the criticisms will be heeded and Federal management practices modified to be more supportive of science is unclear. Previous reports have outlined the same problems.

 

Last week, in the Congressional testimony, the consensus among senior Lab managers was that the problems are becoming worse, not better.

 

Miller, the former Livermore Lab director, told the House Armed Services Committee that despite the laboratories’ many scientific successes, “we could do much more were it not for existing red tape and bureaucratic inefficiencies in federal management and oversight.”

 

 It was one of the milder statements of the day.Sig Hecker, former director at Los Alamos, referred to “stifling” management practices that make it impossible to pursue “creative science” or “attract the (scientific) talent required for the demanding missions.”

 

To Paul Robinson, former director of Sandia, the present situation is so dire that NNSA should be disbanded. “The multiple steps and difficulties that must be overcome to accomplish even simple tasks within technical programs or projects have reached the point that they have become ‘unworkable’ for the scientists and engineers still dedicating their lives to the nuclear weapons missions,’” he wrote in submitted testimony.

 

Almost as if to reinforce the micromanagement complaints by the former directors, 19 pages of testimony from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) made only passing reference to the quality of science at the laboratories.  Instead, it focused on criticisms of NNSA for failing to live up to federal regulations and accounting standards.

 

Last week’s Congressional committee hearing was in response to concerns that have been expressed in the scientific and political worlds that the three national security laboratories – Livermore, Los Alamos and Sandia – are in decline because of management changes imposed by Congress in 2004.

 

The hearing was scheduled to follow release of a report by the National Research Council, which is part of the National Academy of Sciences (see the Independent, February 16, “National Report: Broken Relationship Threatens Research Quality At LLNL.”)

 

That study was co-chaired by Charles Shank, former director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and Charles Curtis, former Deputy Secretary of Energy and co-founder of the Nuclear Threat Initiative.

 

Shank and Curtis submitted their own testimony to the House Armed Services panel, reiterating the belief set forth in the study that the management relationship is “broken” and “dysfunctional.”

 

No current directors of the laboratories testified, and the former directors emphasized that their comments were personal and did not represent institutional views.But it is no secret that criticism of overregulation is universal and strong from the lowest to the highest ranks of the laboratories.

 

Even those who acknowledge the importance of strict regulation in some circumstances insist on the freedom to pursue science.For example, both Miller and Anastasio, who was director at Los Alamos as well as at Livermore, argued for a “balance” in which safety and security are assured without inhibiting scientific creativity.

 

The tension between rules and freedom was famously resolved during World War II at Los Alamos, whose brilliant success with the first atom bomb still argues powerfully for the kinds of scientific freedom that were safeguarded even under the intense pressures of wartime security.

 

All of the former directors reminded the committee that their complaints were not new.

 

Robinson took the prize for historical depth by describing “bureaucratic bloat” from Athens to the inefficiencies of the Ottoman Empire.

 

Applying history more closely to the labs management issue, he explained how James Conant, president of Harvard and a senior Manhattan Project advisor, answered when asked how to “support the scientists who are working to protect our nation’s security?”

 

Conant replied, “The best thing that can be done is to choose men (and women) of brilliance, back them heavily, then leave them alone to do their work.”

 

Hecker brought up the 1995 study, Alternative Futures for the Department of Energy Laboratories, sometimes called the Galvin report.One of its criticisms about micromanagement was that “The laboratories must staff up or reallocate the resources of its people” to respond to “thousands of people…on the government payroll…(who) oversee and prescribe tens of thousands of how-to functions.”

 

In a very different context, another report reached a comparable conclusion in 2000, Hecker reminded the committee. During a period of extremely intense publicity over alleged Chinese espionage at Los Alamos , a commission headed by former Deputy Secretary of Defense John Hamre concluded that DOE micromanagement policy was making both good science and good security impossible.

 

For his part, Miller cited the 2009 report, America’s Strategic Posture, issued by a congressional Commission chaired by former defense secretaries William Perry and James Schlesinger. That report concluded that “NNSA has failed to meet the hopes of its founders .Indeed, it may have become part of the problem, adopting the same micromanagement and unnecessary and obtrusive oversight that it was created to eliminate.”

 

Like James Conant, Miller believes it is vital to get back to a scientific partnership in which the federal government decides what needs to be done and provides the funding, while the laboratories maintain “the highest quality staff” and decide “how to best accomplish those tasks.”

 

It is ironic that Sandia's Robinson should recommend moving the nuclear weapons laboratories to the Defense Department.  Past studies, conducted while Livermore and Los Alamos were under University of California management, concluded that such a move would weaken the labs by creating an intellectually restricted environment of narrow, top-down assignments – just what the Labs now complain about under the Department of Energy’s NNSA.

 

To contrast Livermore’s situation with a very different federal laboratory, Miller cited the case of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. While JPL has a larger budget than Lawrence Livermore, he said, it has only about 30 federal employees on site. Livermore has 130.

 

Miller estimated that it takes one to two Laboratory employees to carry out the tasks created by the on-site federal employees. So if NNSA reduced its on-site staff to the NASA/JPL level of 30, about 100-200 Lawrence Livermore staff could be freed to work productively at science and technology.

 

The former directors expressed concern about recruiting and maintaining top scientific talent in a micromanaged environment.

 

Anastasio said, “It is very difficult to convince top quality technical staff to join an organization where they are told how to do their work and left wondering if there is going to be an opportunity to discover and innovate.This has already resulted in the loss of some of the best mid-career scientists from the Laboratories.”

 

Hecker and Miller reflected similar views.Hecker himself left Los Alamos for Stanford because of the 2004 Congress-mandated decision to move the weapons design laboratories to a for-profit management arrangement, he said in his testimony.

 

More generally, he said, “the loss of trust between the government and its contractors and the stifling operating environment resulting from the imbalance of mission and regulatory requirements has seriously eroded the morale at the laboratories and threatened the very intellectual vitality that is imperative for effective nuclear stewardship.”

 

Miller told the congressional committee that “excessive ‘red tape’ can be expected to have long-term ramifications on the health of the laboratories and their ability to attract and retain quality personnel.”

 

Near the end of his submitted testimony, he wrote, “If the government continues down the path of treating the NNSA laboratories as contractors rather than trusted partners, engaging in excessive oversight and treating the workforce as replaceable employees rather than exceptional people dedicated to public service, I wonder how much longer the national security laboratories will be able to sustain their greatness.”