and battery
November 10, 2011 7:53 AM   Subscribe

Personal involvement disclaimer: though I was never employed by the laboratory, my dissertation experiment was stopped for half a year (and lost more time than that, probably) during Nanos's "cowboys & buttheads" shutdown of 2004
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 7:54 AM on November 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

...under new management by a for-profit company...

Oh jesus christ. The nuclear stockpile is being managed by a private company?

OH and it gets better:
Bechtel, one of the LANS partners, is also a partner in the operations of several other National Nuclear Security Administration facilities which collectively comprise the core of the United States' nuclear weapons design and production capability.
Bechtel Corporation (Bechtel Group) is the largest engineering company in the United States, ranking as the 3rd-largest privately owned company in the U.S.

What could possibly go wrong!
posted by DU at 8:02 AM on November 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Under the management of LANS, scientists at both Livermore and Los Alamos now describe a substantially different organizational culture. In the old days, scientists were managed by other scientists who had risen through the ranks and whom they saw as kin. Now they are largely managed by a phalanx of outsiders brought in under the new management contract. Unlike older lab managers, many of these new managers rotate quickly to other Bechtel sites before they can develop rapport with the scientists they oversee, and they tend to live in Santa Fe rather than in Los Alamos or in the upscale suburbs of the Bay Area rather than Livermore. They are seen by many lab employees as remote, overpaid interlopers who are obsessed with collecting personal bonuses by ensuring that the labs have no safety or security lapses, but have little interest in the labs’ scientific mission. Indeed, since Livermore went under new management, the number of peer-reviewed articles published by its scientists fell from 1,400 in 2005 to about 800 in 2010 (Upton, 2011).
On the one hand, yet another example of Bush Admin ineptitude/corruption pushing a once effective agency into mediocrity.

On the other, the Bush Admin accomplished what the anti-nuke protesters of the 1980s could not: stymie the Labs' capacity to design and build bigger and better bombs.
posted by notyou at 8:17 AM on November 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Hugh Gusterson's (the author of this article) anthropology of the Livermore Labs is awesome reading for any who haven't seen it.

(I cite it extensively in my dissertation)
posted by jrb223 at 8:23 AM on November 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Another possible source of tension between LANL and the government during this period, not here mentioned by Gusterson, was reluctance by the University of California management to produce plutonium pits at LANL. The current management, with a customer to please, does what's asked.
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 8:30 AM on November 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Sigh. This hits a little close to home for me.
posted by FuturisticDragon at 8:44 AM on November 10, 2011

I worked at LANL just before Nanos left. In fact, my interview was postponed due to the "cowboys and buttheads" shutdown. Even during the interview process, the scientists showed the paranoia of upper management that would become the norm as I worked there (I was also there during the transition). I was one of the more dysfunctional places I've worked, and I've mostly worked in academia.

On the other, the Bush Admin accomplished what the anti-nuke protesters of the 1980s could not: stymie the Labs' capacity to design and build bigger and better bombs.

Not that you're wrong, but most peer-reviewed articles are not bomb-related.
posted by dirigibleman at 8:46 AM on November 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

One of the country’s most senior nuclear warhead designers was dejected that summer when I visited Los Alamos and found him going through all of the secret papers in his locked file cabinets, complying with a new management directive to stamp “secret” on the second-to-bottom page of each report in case the bottom page, already stamped “secret,” fell off. This is what he was doing instead of ensuring that the warhead assigned to him was in good working order.

what i dont even
posted by lalochezia at 8:47 AM on November 10, 2011

complying with a new management directive to stamp “secret” on the second-to-bottom page of each report in case the bottom page, already stamped “secret,” fell off.

Been there.
posted by DU at 8:50 AM on November 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

i totally assumed this was going to be about the skrulls.
posted by elizardbits at 8:55 AM on November 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Next time someone tells me they think this country ought to be run more like a business, I'm going to make them read this.

And then I am going to beat them about the head and shoulders with a rolled up newspaper.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 9:08 AM on November 10, 2011 [3 favorites]

Gusterson does indeed write very well, thank you for introducing me to this FPP. After RTFA it sounds a bit like there was also some 'anti-eggheads' feeling going on in the populist press much referenced by Gusterson.
posted by infini at 9:20 AM on November 10, 2011

It's perhaps stunning to outsiders, but an all too common story to those who are familiar with public sector science. Science in the public interest is hard to put performance metrics on, particularly in direct benefits to the regulators and policy makers. Number of publications works for individual scientists, but how does that help advance a senior manager's career? What splashy new policy files does research develop? Hard to measure and worse, not very consistent.

To non-science public sector managers, research is seen at best as a necessary evil, a bottomless pit that dollars get thrown into without direct benefits to them, personally. It's an endeavor with high capital and labor costs, with relatively high risks attached, in terms of safety, injuries and fires, and costs, expensive one-off equipment failures, and most importantly, time, research programs which don't deliver results according to their Gantt-chart schedules. Complex projects are frequently subject to delays not because of science, but because of administrative complexities.

Managers get more points within their own organization for doing creative things to manage these "problems". Creating public-private partnerships are pure wins for the managers: all the risks get put into the contract to be assumed by the company. There's an illusion of responsible management---they just have to manage the contract. There's an illusion of flexibility---if one contractor doesn't work out, a new contract can always be let. And there's cost containment, actual---under private management, public sector managers don't need to cut anything directly, union restrictions can be avoided and the contract costs are usually fixed for years in advance.

IME, a few things happen to the scientists and engineers in the new P2P. They all take immediate paycuts and staff reductions. Post-doc and student pay goes down, meaning fewer and lower quality young researchers. The labs rot as equipment ages and doesn't get replaced.

So people start to flee, to academia, to other parts of the multi-national, etc.. Within a few years the place is a shell of it's former self. It's either cut entirely, if this can be done without public notice, or continues to be a lowly-funded backwater for lifers, if funding has to be maintained. The lab's mandate, the work it is supposed to do, goes increasingly unmet.

Another other option, if the P2P private management is good at their jobs is that the lab can become a science consultancy operating under the name of government. To survive, it seeks out work-for-hire from other sources, public and private. In this case, not only does the mandate go unmet, as the lab is doing other work, but it is also subject to conflicts of interest, as it is forced to work for the companies its work is supposed to regulate. The basic science doesn't get done and regulatory capture happens. Oddly, because these facilities are busy hives of activity with all the outside work, these are seen as the great success stories of P2P outsourcing by the public managers.
posted by bonehead at 9:42 AM on November 10, 2011 [9 favorites]

This really needed to be edited out:
though it has to be said that the neocons of Baghdad created a catastrophe by denying the importance of cultural differences between Americans and Iraqis, while Pete Nanos ran his lab into the ground by insisting on the existence of a distinctive culture that was largely an artifact of his own imagination.
I mean, he contradicts himself later in the same article.

My biases are strongly in agreement with the author's, but the carelessness over the use of "culture" forces me to wondering if he is glossing over evidence that doesn't support his arguments.
posted by Chuckles at 9:45 AM on November 10, 2011

Science in the public interest is hard to put performance metrics on, particularly in direct benefits to the regulators and policy makers. Number of publications works for individual scientists, [...]

Science in general is hard to put performance metrics on. And, did you seriously just say that number of publications is a good metric for an individual's performance? Like exams for students, it might be the only practical metric available. That doesn't mean it "works".
posted by Chuckles at 9:53 AM on November 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'd appreciate the snippet with the contradiction as well.

In reading, while I noticed he used culture numerous times, overall the impression given was that isolated incidents were often taken out of context (missing tapes = bad label inventory) and that assumptions were being made based on an existing (and never rectified) perception of the "culture" of the location.
posted by infini at 9:54 AM on November 10, 2011

Here let me ctrl-F for you :)
Under the management of LANS, scientists at both Livermore and Los Alamos now describe a substantially different organizational culture. In the old days, scientists were managed by other scientists who had risen through the ranks and whom they saw as kin. Now they are largely managed by a phalanx of outsiders brought in under the new management contract.
Somebody will soon argue that the author thinks "organizational culture" should be considered as different from culture in the general sense.

Maybe the language wasn't careless exactly. It still leaves me wondering about what the author isn't saying.
posted by Chuckles at 10:05 AM on November 10, 2011

Science in the public interest is hard to put performance metrics on, particularly in direct benefits to the regulators and policy makers. Number of publications works for individual scientists,

Singapore's biotech program has faced some similar challenges - with key scientists leaving and those remaining describing almost exactly the situation bonehead describes so well. However, I believe their management was done by the state rather than a private management firm, although it has been said that the state is often run like a multinational with a CEO at the helm. Otoh, they, I believe, put key performance indicators to include number of patents filed and articles published, all with the goal of seeking an ROI rather than simply following hte contractual obligations as outlined previously.
posted by infini at 10:07 AM on November 10, 2011

Publication numbers "work" well enough for metrics for research only (though citation and impact factor numbers have also been used), but there are problems with scientist who do work that isn't or can't be published (e.g. classified or legal work). At least it is somewhat measurable. To that extent, publication records "work" as a job metric.

My point was that it's almost impossible to measure how well a research program "works" in a similar way. Aside from once-in-a-lifetime lightning bolts like receiving a Nobel prize (eg the IPCC), there's not a lot of recognition for program results, generally.

How well was LANL "working" before the P2P takeover? How would you measure that? Signs on Capitol Hill saying "X days since our last missile malfunction"? As made clear at the beginning of the article, these sorts of things are easy to misinterpret and misrepresent. Misjudgment and misunderstanding what a public sciences program does and how it succeeds are the core problems addressed by Gusterson.
posted by bonehead at 10:08 AM on November 10, 2011

Thank you for the Ctrl -F, but I'm afraid I must be dense this evening for I don't see the apparent contradiction. Still, that may be a derail here so I shall go ponder further over this instead.
posted by infini at 10:09 AM on November 10, 2011

It's funny. At my company, the scientists used to run things. But scientists are ... scientists, and not necessarily good at running things. So they brought in managers. Things are mostly ok, although there always seem to be these arbitrary deadlines that only seem to exist so that the managers can get their bonuses.

But, having the scientists continue to run things wasn't the answer either. I don't know what is.
posted by Melismata at 10:26 AM on November 10, 2011

Engineers with MBAs seems to be the new hotness

They only remind me of the hordes who went on to the IIM*s from the IIT*s since the 70s and are now running around across India's largest companies and management consultancies around the world.

Its a standard path to $$$ success there.

*Indian Institute of Management
*Indian Institute of Technology
posted by infini at 10:36 AM on November 10, 2011

The best run science and developmental engineering shops I've seen, public or private, are run by people with some technical background, but with a strong sense of both their mandate, whether for profit or public good, and good strategic sense. They can be formally educated in science/engineering or simply motivated and willing to learn. But they have to care about what they do.

This story is about managers, public and in the P2P, who do not care about the work they had to deliver on, keeping the nuclear arsenal safe and operational. They cared more about looking good in the press and to their own organizations, hence the development of arbitrary "measurable" performance metrics.

Careerism, in other words.
posted by bonehead at 10:43 AM on November 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

What's needed is some sort of ability to determine who is motivated primarily by careerism or greed and who's motivated more by vision or whatever. But even that idea is flawed because people motivated by vision may feel that the best way to achieve their vision is to get more power and authority by boosting their career.
posted by delmoi at 11:17 AM on November 10, 2011

I'd very much like if the New York Times ran this article.
posted by hypersloth at 11:20 AM on November 10, 2011

I'm a government scientist, and we are evaluated with one set of metrics for annual performance reviews -- basically, number of manuscripts submitted to peer-reviewed journals -- and another for promotions. The latter is a peer-review process that focuses on the demonstrable impact of your research. In my experience the paper-count is largely worthless because it focuses only on quantity, placing it at odds with the notion of impact used for promotions, but the peer-review process is pretty fair. It's odd to be in the position of having to produce lots of important papers every year, but them's the breaks. We're on 100% research appointments and have appropriated funds, so we have a fighting chance at making it.

Now we're getting much more pressure to seek extramural funds while we're simultaneously prohibited from being PIs on the principal competitive grants that fund agricultural research in the U.S. Well, okay, we have to play well with others and join consortia. Our overhead is much lower than a lot of institutions, so sometimes it's advantageous to have us on proposals, but we don't have grad students and our postdoc costs are high compared to universities.

There's no money this year for bonuses earned by having a strong performance review, and there is very little money for awarding quality step increases to those rated "Outstanding". Times are tough, we can do our share. The panelists were just very quietly told that they're going to have to score a lot more people just below the cutoff for promotion because there's no money for grade increases, and we weren't told that the criteria on which we're being evaluated has changed. That's not fair -- if it's going to be tougher to make the grade, people should be told that. As a result of these and other changes in compensation and benefits packages I know several top-quality people who are quietly looking for other positions. If I leave, it probably won't cripple my lab because my colleagues are much better scientists than I am. Combine this with the looming wave of retirements -- my boss has been offered a buyout to retire -- and the federal science agencies are going to be in terrible shape in a few years.

I hope that someone doesn't come by and accuse me of having a spoiled, entitled attitude. I'm sincere when I say that most of us recognize that these are difficult times, and we're willing to do our share to get through them. I work hard and feel that the evaluation and promotion processes I've been working under are about as fair as I could ask for. However, I think that it's an act of poor faith when management moves the goalposts and doesn't tell everyone about it. When you feel like the game is rigged you're more likely to look for opportunities elsewhere. I know I'm quietly talking to people about options. I like my agency and really like my colleagues, but in the end I'm going to do whatever's best for my family.

Did I mention that we've already had a policy issued and rescinded today that would have required two spaces following all periods that terminate sentences? That's not as bad as stamping "Secret" on the second-to-last page of everything, but only as a matter of degree.
posted by wintermind at 11:24 AM on November 10, 2011 [7 favorites]

A very close friend of mine worked at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory for almost thirty years, as a mathematician. (In fact, one of his programs was taken by Wen Ho Lee. Nothing nuclear, just something about making computers run algorithms faster, something useful to Lee's possible future work.)

If you missed it above: the University (Berkeley) used to run the lab, but after that bogus Lee spy scandal, the government felt they had to so something, so they let Bechtel run the lab instead. So. My friend was let go with a bunch of older researchers in the kind of cost-cutting scheme corporations can get away with, unlike universities. After a lawsuit, they were grudgingly rehired under less than ideal financial circumstances.

Why do so many people think the government is inefficient and businesses are all-American wonderful? This kind of thing is why "Corporation" is a dirty word to so many of us.

It happens with scientists; it happens with teachers in charter schools: stop the privatization avalanche! Like with real avalanches, the outcomes are usually not positive.
posted by kozad at 12:48 PM on November 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

When the Wen Ho Lee thing broke back in '99, I thought it was merely an attempt to embarrass the Clinton administration and undermine the campaign of Al Gore, if he were to be nominated, by FBI director Louis Freeh:

Freeh was also enraged by White House behavior: He reportedly felt the administration had embarrassed the bureau with Filegate and was disgusted by Clinton's sleazy fund raising and sleazier adultery.

So Freeh and his team cultivated their Republican paymasters. He charmed key senators—Orrin Hatch and Arlen Specter in particular. He delighted Republicans by lavishly praising Ken Starr. Congress boosted Freeh's budget by 50 percent in four years. When DOJ budgeters rejected FBI requests, the bureau's lobbyists even went behind the DOJ's back and persuaded legislators to add the goodies to the final bill.

Such FBI lobbying was nothing new. But Freeh and his team also began to publicize its conflicts with the DOJ and use them for political gain. The most notorious example of this occurred during the 1997 investigation of the Clinton-Gore fund-raising scandal. Freeh wrote a private memo urging Reno to appoint an independent counsel to investigate the fund raising. Reno rejected his advice, but Freeh's memo somehow found its way to Hill Republicans, who used it to bash Reno and to demand her resignation. FBI watchers say it's unheard of for the FBI director to disagree so publicly with the AG, who is, after all, his boss.

The "Clinton-Gore fund-raising scandal" referred to in this quotation was

The 1996 United States campaign finance controversy
, also known as Chinagate, was an alleged effort by the People's Republic of China to influence domestic American politics during the 1996 federal elections.

The issue first received public attention in early 1997, with news that a Justice Department investigation had uncovered evidence that agents of China sought to direct contributions to the Democratic National Committee (DNC) in violation of U.S. laws regarding foreign political contributions.[1] The Chinese government denied all accusations. Twenty-two people were eventually convicted of fraud or for funneling Asian funds into the United States elections, and others fled U.S. jurisdiction. Several of these were associates of Bill Clinton or Al Gore.

I still think so, and that the destruction of the Los Alamos National Laboratory was only collateral damage.
posted by jamjam at 12:54 PM on November 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

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