Between 1977 and 1989, when I was a regent of the University of California, I felt strongly that a university, any university, should not be in the weapons business. As a result, I was determined to sever the contract under which UC ran the weapons labs at Los Alamos and Livermore for the U.S. Department of Energy.
I was not alone in that view. Anti-nuclear protesters and others in the university community, including some among the regents, felt the same way. However, as severance emerged as a possible, even likely, outcome, it also became apparent that the management of the labs would probably be transferred to the Department of Energy itself. Thus the broader national issue of competence -- could a governmental bureaucracy do nuclear weapons research and development well? -- became a key concern.
I felt that the job, distasteful as it was, had to be done, and done well. Nuclear weapons were far too important and scientifically demanding to be carried out by laboratories with less than outstanding qualifications. After much rethinking, I became reluctantly satisfied that the University of California should retain its leadership in weapons development and management of the labs.
Now, because of recently revealed mismanagement at Los Alamos, including missing equipment and erratic oversight behavior, I have had to reexamine my thinking on the subject. I have kept in mind the vital distinction between administration and management on the one hand and substantive scientific work on the other.
The role of the University of California, especially in the recruitment of senior scientific staff, stands out as absolutely critical. Although other universities and bureaucracies have been suggested to replace UC, none has comparable authority and prestige. UC's track record at Livermore and Los Alamos is a particularly attractive magnet for scientists.
The significance of the laboratories' mission also has changed. When I was a regent, "weapons research" meant the design, development and testing of nuclear weapons, whose awesome destructive power was the reason many of us objected to the university's involvement. Today, we see a far more complex and dangerous world in which nuclear, biological and chemical weapons of mass destruction may be in the hands of nations and groups whose motives are hostile to U.S. interests.
Like many people who would like to avoid needless conflict, I hope that diplomatic efforts will reduce the danger on an international basis. But in the meantime, our nation needs the underlying technological skills to understand and counter the threat and, if necessary, to minimize the damage of an attack on our homeland.
The UC national security laboratories at Livermore and Los Alamos are among our most important resources in this effort. Their skills and facilities are unexcelled, in no small degree because of the quality of effort engendered by the university. To do away with that arrangement would be self-destructive to our nation.
By all means improve the administration of the labs. The university is at last taking aggressive steps to do so. It should be encouraged and supported in this effort. But the labs are too important to be managed by another organization.
Stanley K. Sheinbaum is a former chairman of the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Southern California and a former regent of the University of California.