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House Armed Services Subcommittee Examines Management of National Security Labs

Richard M. Jones
Number 32 - March 1, 2012  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

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“If this isn’t fixed we’re going to lose the capability of these laboratories.  This has just got to be fixed . . . the stakes are very, very high here.”  So warned Charles Curtis, a member of a National Research Council committee charged with reviewing the management and the conduct of scientific research and engineering at the three National Security Laboratories. 

On February 16, the Strategic Forces Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee received testimony from two panels of witnesses on the management of Los Alamos, Sandia, and Lawrence Livermore laboratories by the National Nuclear Security Administration.  There was uniform agreement that changes are needed, with C. Paul Robinson, of Sandia National Laboratories describing “a system that is truly broken,” later adding “the micromanagement is killing us.” 

The National Nuclear Security Administration was established by Congress in 1999 to provide, as then Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM) later explained “a clean slate” for the management of DOE’s weapons complex.  Witnesses at the hearing testified that the outcome of the change in management has fallen short of expectations, a sentiment shared by subcommittee chairman Michael Turner (R-OH) who remarked in his opening comments that:

“This hearing will examine long-standing, well-documented, and fundamental concerns with the way NNSA manages its labs and plants --problems that are unnecessarily costing taxpayers many hundreds of millions of dollars each year and impeding NNSA’s ability to accomplish its mission. In today’s fiscal environment we cannot afford such inefficiency and waste -- particularly when we’re seeing major cuts to the pledged nuclear modernization funding in this year’s budget request.”

Turner intends to include provisions relating to the management of the laboratories in the committee’s defense authorization bill that will be drafted this year

Rep Jim Langevin (RI), the most senior Democrat at the hearing, described the importance of implementation of management changes to retain the best workforce, the over-riding importance of safety for workers and the public, and the importance of transparency.  All Members, he said, are committed to the success of NNSA and its employees. 

There was little disagreement among the witnesses that changes are needed.  Charles Shank, co-chairman of the committee, and Curtis described the first report of the National Research Council Committee on Review of the Quality of the Management and of the Science and Engineering Research at the DOE’s National Security Laboratories.  The committee released its 120-page pre-publication report on February 15 in response to a provision in the FY 2010 Defense Authorization Act requiring this study. 

They highlighted the committee’s recommendations in their joint testimony to the subcommittee as follows:

“Evolution of the Mission

“The committee recommends that Congress recognize that maintenance of the stockpile remains the core mission of the labs and that other national security mission work contributes to the accomplishment of that mission and in that context the Congress should consider endorsing and supporting in some way the evolution of the NNSA laboratories to National Security Laboratories as described in the July 2010 four-agency Governance Charter for an Interagency Council on the Strategic Capability of DOE National Laboratories.

“The committee recommends that Congress and NNSA maintain strong support of the LDRD [Laboratory Directed Research and Development] program as it is an essential component of enabling the long-term viability of the laboratories.

“The committee recommends that Congress reduce the number of restrictive budget reporting categories in the Nuclear Weapons Program and permit the use of such funds to support a robust core weapons research program and further develop necessary S&E [science and engineering] capability.

“Relationship between the labs and NNSA oversight

“A technical advisory committee, established at the NNSA level, would be a helpful mechanism for filling this [organizational dispute resolution] gap in S&E management. More generally, such an advisory committee could monitor progress on other aspects of roles and responsibilities.

“The committee recommends that NNSA and each of the Laboratories commit to the goal of rebalancing the managerial and governance relationship to build in a higher level of trust in program execution and laboratory operations in general.

“The committee recommends that NNSA and the Laboratories agree on a set of principles that clearly lay out the boundaries and roles of each management structure, and also that program managers at headquarters, the Site Offices, and in the laboratories be directed to abide by these principles.

“The committee recommends that the goal of rebalancing the relationship and the set of principles laying out the boundaries and roles of each management structure be memorialized in memoranda of understanding between NNSA and its Laboratories. Performance against these understandings should be assessed on an annual basis over a five-year period and reported to Congress.

“The Future

“The committee recommends that NNSA, Congress, and top management of the Laboratories recognize that the safety and security systems at the Laboratories have been strengthened to the point where they no longer need special attention. NNSA and Laboratory management should explore ways by which the administrative, safety, and security costs can be reduced over time consistent with maintaining high quality efforts in these areas, so that they not impose an excessive burden on essential S&E activities.”

Other witnesses at this hearing included Eugene Aloise of the Government Accountability Office, Michael Anastasio of Los Alamos National Laboratory and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and George Miller of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.  Their testimony touched on common themes: strong support for laboratory employees and the importance of their work in areas such as stockpile stewardship, the loss of partnership and trust, an aversion to risk, excessive oversight, unfunded requirements, and an unstable budget outlook.  Concern was expressed about the long-term health of scientific research and the loss of mid-range employees at the laboratories.

In commenting on these problems, Miller told the subcommittee:

“We could do much more were it not for existing red tape and bureaucratic inefficiencies in federal management and oversight of the laboratories. As a nation, we cannot afford to waste precious R&D dollars on bureaucratic inefficiencies, particularly at a time when the prospect is for austere budgets in the decade ahead. For the funding provided to NNSA, the laboratories could be accomplishing much more in nuclear security programs -- hundreds of millions of dollars of work per year . . . . Work performed for other federal sponsors would similarly benefit from lower work costs at the laboratories, and there would be fewer impediments to arranging interagency work. Both factors are key for the nation to maximize its value from the NNSA laboratories at time when scientific and technological advances are sorely needed to address 21st century challenges to U.S. security.”

Richard M. Jones
Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics
rjones@aip.org
301-209-3095