Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Pete Domenici (R-NM) has opened a series of hearings on the management of the Department of Energy's national laboratories. While somewhat reminiscent of the hearings held a few years ago on lab management, the June 24 hearing had none of the fireworks that marked earlier inquiries.
Said Domenici, "My committee is holding these hearings to explore DOE lab management as a whole and to address specific issues that need to be considered as DOE prepares to compete management contracts for the Los Alamos lab, and eventually, the Lawrence-Livermore lab." Invited to testify were John Peoples, Jr., Director Emeritus of Fermilab; Sig Hecker, Senior Fellow at Los Alamos National Laboratory; Herman Postma, former Director of Oakridge National Laboratory; and Martha Krebs, President of Science Strategies and former director of the DOE Office of Science. The hearing follows a DOE announcement made two months ago that the Los Alamos operating contract will be open to competitive bidding in 2005. The University of California has managed this lab since its establishment sixty years ago.
Addressing the witnesses and his fellow committee members (in attendance were Senators Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), Lamar Alexander (R- TN), and Larry Craig (R-ID)), Domenici spoke of the "need to optimize the relationship" between the labs and DOE. He characterized the criteria used by DOE to enter into or extend current management contracts as "extremely vague." Domenici added that "there have been many studies noting that increased micro management of the labs, much of it in the name of providing increased accountability, has greatly complicated the ability of laboratory scientists and engineers to deliver on their critical national missions."
In his testimony, Postma described the relationship between DOE and its laboratories over the last sixty years as "fundamentally sound," saying that the GOCO structure (government-owned, contractor- operated) "has served the country very well." Krebs said that "since the creation of the department there has been well-meaning, often unintentional, but ultimately and unfortunately, benign neglect on the part of the internal and external programmatic sponsors of the laboratories." She called for a clear statement from congressional committees "of what the laboratories' M&O [maintenance and operations] contracts should be . . . for the next 30 years." Hecker lamented how the original partnership between the government and the laboratories has changed in response to public criticism and "intense congressional pressure." "It's also become more difficult to nurture world class science, to deal with the risks of nuclear operations and to provide a buffer from the political pressures, as well as to provide the continuity that's necessary for stewardship." Merely competing or changing the contractors will not solve the underlying problem, Hecker said. Peoples told the committee "that partnership can be made to work . . . I think that the future of these laboratories is with the GOCO concept."
Issues raised during the question-and-answer session included contract continuity, difficulties in the extension process, what Bingaman said was "bias toward competing these contacts," the circumstances under which the decision was made to compete the Los Alamos contract, university "culture" and government procedures, and the contractor assessment process. The next hearing is scheduled for July 17.