Thursday, April 05, 2007


Commentary by Alan Zelicoff: Managing the management

Sandia and Los Alamos national labs have been gravy trains for New Mexico, but their slip-ups are slicing into their value

by Alan Zelicoff, Thursday, April 5, 2007

Zelicoff, a former senior scientist at Sandia National Laboratories, is a writer and scientific consultant residing in Albuquerque. His latest book is "Doctor, Don't Just Do Something, Stand There," scheduled for release in June by AMACOM Publishers.

Unlike Los Alamos National Laboratory -- long known for its scientific prowess and more recently for tawdry security lapses -- Sandia National Laboratories has hardly been a household word.

And, for many at Sandia and elsewhere, that was just fine. Indeed, during a visit in 2002 at the height of security scandals raging at Los Alamos, Albuquerque Rep. Heather Wilson started her address to Sandia employees with the comment: "Thank God you aren't Los Alamos."

Nervous laughter followed. But the message was clear: Sandia could continue to quietly hide in the ever darkening shadow of its sister nuclear lab, protecting $2.3 billion budget from serious congressional review.

But that cozy arrangement has just changed. A few weeks ago, a jury awarded almost $5 million to Shawn Carpenter, a computer security expert fired by Sandia in 2005 for allegedly violating lab protocols by uncovering foreign hacking into classified computers in intelligence agencies.

Instead, the jury found that Sandia management violated its own protocols for disciplinary review. Having attended the trial, perhaps the most striking evidence to me was that six layers of management were complicit. Attention to basic management principles was so lax that at the final "termination meeting" in January 2005 -- attended by three vice presidents, including Sandia's chief legal counsel - the assembled brain trust bumbled so badly that it failed to even take minutes.

Most importantly, Carpenter wasn't even given a chance to submit a written statement in his own defense.

Newfound notoriety for management malfeasance couldn't come at a worse time. In a rare moment of consensus, House Energy Committee members from both sides of the aisle have been apoplectic in their dismay over classified Los Alamos documents found in a trailer housing a methamphetamine lab, and equally apocalyptic in their prescription: a full GAO audit, and even threatening a shutdown.

Democrats, determined to pare deficits and joined by many senior Republicans, see a decade of near catastrophic management failures at each of the three main labs: billions in cost overruns at Lawrence Livermore's centerpiece NIF laser fusion project; an exodus of scientific staff from Los Alamos as voluminous as the river of lost classified materials; and now the exposure of Sandia's heretofore obscure abuse of its employees.

Thus, the debate has been rekindled, which could lead to an appropriations backlash. In a post-Cold War world, what is the value of our national laboratories?

Ask any employee what ails the labs, you'll hear "decaying mission and loss of focus." The former reflects the denuclearization of U.S. strategic thinking; the latter is a result of a bloated bureaucracy maintaining dozens of departments running projects far afield from the labs' core responsibility: maintaining the safety and reliability of the dwindling nuclear stockpile.

An uncountable array of new lab programs have emerged, courtesy of taxpayers -- "international programs" and "advanced concepts studies" to name but two keep questionably productive fiefdoms afloat.

To be sure, some products actually useful in daily life, such as sophisticated wind turbines and new energy-saving lights, have trickled out of the labs. But for every entrepreneurial success, there are many more that might have competed well in the marketplace but for ham-fisted management decisions leaving them to gather dust.

With a price tag of more than $1.1 billion for each lab's non-nuclear work, it's not hard to see why the carving knives are being unsheathed in Washington.

Yet the labs are an important source of cash for New Mexico. Should the gravy train stop, the entire state could suffer an economic meltdown. The predictable reaction of our congressional delegation will be to circle the wagons, but they are unlikely to prevail. In the face of repeated embarrassments at the labs, there isn't much of a circle anymore.

Instead, it may be time to think in terms of damage control and plan for a future where Sandia and Los Alamos labs are stably funded for the one mission they do well, shrinking a sprawling failed management bureaucracy and minimizing security snafus in exchange.

Additionally, the DOE must release without redaction their "performance evaluation reports" of the labs. Should managers fail again in their stewardship of once prestigious centers of excellence, annual bonuses exceeding the average New Mexico household income must be withheld.

It's the only way to clean up the mess.

E.W. Scripps Co. © 2006 The Albuquerque Tribune

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