When laboratory employees were questioned about heavy-handed bureaucratic processes, they could not point to their origin; that was true even for managers. The contracts and their incentives do not seem to encourage or mandate this. One senior SNL employee suggested that conservatism can accrete when there are layers of rules and processes, with little trust about who is going to take on risk.
Trust can be considered in two different ways: one concerning reliance, and the other confidence. Reliance means believing in the other party’s character and ability: can the other party be believed? Does the other party know what he/she is talking about? Do I have faith in the other party’s knowledge and expertise? Confidence means believing that I can depend on something in the future regarding another individual or group. Can I rely on the other person to do what they said they would do? Based on extensive discussions, the study committee thinks that if it were to ask NNSA, the laboratory managers, or the scientists and engineers at the laboratories these questions, none would answer in the affirmative. There is a persistent level of mistrust. While some progress has been made in recent years under current NNSA and laboratory leadership, much more is needed to repair the damage that has been done.
Finding 4.1. There is evidence of poor communications and lack of transparency at the highest levels, as illustrated by NNSA and laboratory leadership reporting significantly different assessments of the current management and operational relationship. The degradation of trust—whether confidence or reliance—is frequently accelerated in an environment of poor communication and lack of transparency. Discussions at study committee meetings indicated a persistent level of mistrust between NNSA staff and the laboratory scientists, particularly at LANL and LLNL.
Finding 4.2. The LANL and LLNL Site Offices are organized and staffed largely for monitoring compliance of the laboratories with extant DOE and other operational regulations. This reflects mistrust of laboratory management and staff to execute its mission responsibilities effectively and with reliable commitment to safety, security, and environmental concerns.
The study committee recognizes the responsibility to follow federal regulations about environment health, safety, and security, but also argues for a balanced approach that maximizes scientific flexibility within those requirements.
Experimental science is at the very heart of the scientific method, which relies on gathering empirical and measurable evidence subject to specific principles of reasoning tested through experimentation. Experimentation leads to discovery, and also provides essential validation for modeling and simulation.
The study committee observes that operational formality, which has been the by-product of the loss of trust in the laboratories’ ability to maintain fiscal integrity and the safety and security of its work, is not a good basis on which to conduct productive, creative experimental work. Its checklist-based methods are demonstrably valuable for high-risk tasks, but onerous when nimble thinking and innovation are required. S&E staff and some managers at all three laboratories told the study committee that experimentation is becoming more difficult to pursue, and therefore less common, because of burdensome steps that must be completed associated with purchasing, safety checks and certifications, and so on. Thus, there is already some evidence that science and engineering at the laboratories are relying less on experimentation, which has worrisome implications for the S&E.