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National Labs’ Work Force: Too Precious to Squander : Scientists and engineers could drive the competitiveness of U.S. industry

Welcome as it is, the end of the Cold War has spelled bad news for the nation’s nuclear bomb designers and makers. Their highly skilled services are no longer in great demand. But they have a golden opportunity to prove, despite past failures, that it is possible to convert U.S. weapons brainpower to peacetime needs. It should not be lost.

The federally owned national labs are undergoing painful transitions, their budgets shrinking, their raison d’etre questioned. The labs are run by the Department of Defense, NASA and the Department of Energy. The conversion question is sharpest at the three energy labs that design and build nuclear weapons--Lawrence Livermore in California and Los Alamos and Sandia in New Mexico.

Their budgets total $3.5 billion a year--at a time when the government says it needs only a third of the weapons technology of the past. The last nuclear bomb was built three years ago and testing has been indefinitely halted. So something must give. The solution, however, should not be the closing of one or two of the labs. Their staffs and advanced equipment represent too valuable a national resource.

Weapons technology is still crucial, if only to help dismantle unneeded American and Soviet warheads, to combat nuclear proliferation and to provide skilled stewardship of remaining warheads. And the labs have been told by President Clinton to maintain the capability of designing weapons, a huge scientific challenge considering it is impossible to test them. It is like designing airplanes without wind tunnels or flight tests.

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Even so, the United States has a surplus of skilled bomb labor. We must not turn these people into scientific guns for hire, shopping for whatever work they can get to keep busy. They should be given focused missions that derive from their intrinsic strengths.

According to Victor H. Reis, assistant secretary of energy for defense programs, the labs should fill a “crucial niche” between non-directed university research and industrial needs. Energy Secretary Hazel O’Leary speaks of using them to enhance American economic competitiveness through “technology transfer.”

These bureaucratic terms are easier to say than define. Reis talks of turning the labs to civilian tasks that complement military ones, using “core competencies” in computer, instrumentation and laser technology. For example, Livermore’s massive computational skills have proved useful to biological research on mapping the human genome. Livermore points to the work of Roger Aines and Robin Newmark, who use the lab’s expertise in high-temperature physics and underground imaging to clean up gasoline pollution of the water table. Sandia applies infrared technology to recycling plastic containers; Los Alamos has turned its powerful lasers to air pollution problems.

A technique for technology transfer is the cooperative research and development agreement, or Crada, to use the jargon, with industry. These are government contracts with companies to develop nascent technologies. For example, Livermore has signed a Crada with General Motors to research lasers in automobile manufacturing. But Cradas work only until one is successful and competitors start complaining that government is favoring one company over another, argues Lewis M. Branscomb, director of the science, technology and public policy program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. The Energy Department must resolve this potential problem, possibly limiting Cradas to industrial consortiums whose product is available to all companies.

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The labs’ most obvious task is in cleaning up the environmental mess left by nuclear bomb production or testing in Colorado, Texas, Nevada and Washington state. Whatever they wind up doing, though, the labs face a difficult cultural change. Even as they try to be more open, secrecy remains an impediment to outside cooperation and many top scientists are handicapped, never having been able to publish. But the nation must not overlook the powerful resource represented by the labs. As Roger W. Werne, Livermore’s associate director for engineering and technology transfer, puts it, “People here passionately want to have a defined mission.” It is to the nation’s and California’s benefit to give them that.


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