directly on quality of science and engineering at LANL and LLNL: Appendix D).5,6 This formula is designed to provide incentives for a high degree of management performance, which can be constructive in many environments. However, in an environment of broken trust, it carries a high risk that management will focus almost entirely on those contractual scoring criteria that account for the majority of the award fee, to the detriment of the science and engineering components of the mission.
A senior staff member at LANL provided some written comments to the study committee that captures the situation very well:
When I started as a young postdoc and then later in my career as university professor and also here at the laboratory, there was a social contract, which basically said ‘You will never get rich in science, but we treat you as adults, respect you for your commitment, and in turn you can pursue science and have fun.’ Today, this contract is badly broken … an atmosphere of distrust … rigorous control and checks.
How else could one explain the fact that today the signatures of [3-4 people] are required if I want to take my laptop home to work from home? I also need to write a half page justification why I want to work from home. If I want to attend the meeting of the division of nuclear physics of the APS, I need signature of [five people] … Where academic freedom once reigned … we have today a laboratory totally driven by risk averseness. We are drowning in paperwork and regulations. I know of three world-class scientists just in my group, who left … because they could not work in this environment anymore. Many more in other groups and divisions also left.
An LLNL employee with over three decades of experience explained the effect that this environment has on high-quality S&E:
I have seen our efficiency drop by at least a factor of two over the last two decades, and the inefficiency accelerated after the contract change from UC to LLNS. The laboratory is being micro-managed by DOE, and now the new contractor, to the detriment of this country. I worked hard, and I’m sometimes frustrated by the bureaucracy that does not have a long-term view of the lab. It seems that concern about risks overrides scientific progress constantly. Often times, I will not initiate or take on difficult R&D assignments because of the unfunded hoops I have to jump through …
An erosion of trust on both sides of the relationship shapes the oversight and operation of the laboratories. This in turn has resulted in excessive reliance on operational formality in important aspects of laboratory operations, including the conduct of science and engineering at the laboratories. Operational formality is the application of specific rules and predetermined procedures to the accomplishment of tasks. This approach derives from industrial practices, where it is often important to assure goals such as safety by specifying exactly how tasks are to be done and then taking measures to ensure that these steps are strictly followed.7 While the application of “follow the numbers” to ensure safety in selected tasks seems obvious, so does the mismatch of this approach to creative activities such as S&E. This erosion of the trust relationship is prominent with respect to LANL, where past failures attracted much national attention and public criticism. But it has also spilled over to LLNL and SNL, where management relationships also have acquired considerable operational formality.
While some laboratory S&E staff believes the excessive use of operational formality is a choice imposed by the M&O contractors, or by the contracts, the study committee did not see evidence of that.
5 At Sandia, where the at-risk fee is much smaller (although the fixed fee is roughly the same), the ratio is reversed.
6 For example, over $54 million of fee was at risk to performance assessments in FY2010 at LANL, of which $44 million was granted.
7 See, for example, Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, Operational Formality for Department of Energy Nuclear Facilities and Activities, Technical Report DNFSB/TECH-15, March 1997.