Finding 4.3. Increasing operational formality contributes to a bias against experimental work. Without a strong experimental program, the quality of scientific and engineering at the laboratories will be at risk, as will the core mission of these laboratories.
NNSA needs to reexamine the roles and responsibilities of federal oversight officials and laboratory management, and a mechanism needs to be devised to resolve differences that occur in executing roles and responsibilities in laboratory operations and programs. Excellent science and engineering is at risk when laboratory scientists and engineers do not perceive that they are in a partnership that encourages them to bring forth their creative ideas to solve problems vital to our national security. In the broader science environment, such conflicts are typically settled through peer review and open discussion. Resolution through back channels sows mistrust. By the very nature of the laboratories’ mission, much of the work is done in a closed, classified environment. This adds complexity when trying to resolve scientific conflicts, but does not remove the necessity for doing so.
Successful partnerships, like successful societies, depend upon a high level of trust. Like barnacles on the bottom of a boat, mistrust accretes and accumulates over time until it compromises performance. Broken trust requires repair if the long-term performance of the laboratory missions is not to suffer. Due to the degree of mistrust that has encrusted over time, repairing that broken trust will require considerable time and effort. Mistrust is a highly stable phenomenon and can last for years if not decades. Therefore, attempting to fix things all at once and quickly is naïve and likely to fail.
Recommendation 4.1. The study 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.
Recommendation 4.2. The study 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.
For example, the site manager and the director and/or deputy director of each laboratory could establish, in consultation with other laboratory staff, a process to identify and agree on eliminating certain oversight procedures that are not necessary or related to the overall goals of the laboratory. Similarly, some mechanism could be established to filter program tasking at both the headquarters level and at the laboratory senior management level to assure that each tasking is necessary and consistent with the agreed management principles.
Recommendation 4.3. The study 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. 8
One sign of broken trust reported to the study is that mid-level issues were elevated to the laboratory director level because there was no clarity about how to resolve disputes between a laboratory and an NNSA Site Office. Another example was a recent instance in which NNSA HQ tried to overrule a laboratory’s best scientific judgment about how to carry out a scientific task. Subsequently, language appeared in a congressional report opposing that NNSA order.
8 The committee observes that it is important to design this approach to be self-correcting and to avoid problems such as: (1) adding to a check-list approach to management; (2) enforcing measures that annual assessment shows to be unworkable; and (3) requiring Congressional intervention when not needed.