House Armed Services Subcommittee Examines Management of National Security Labs

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Publication date: 
1 March 2012

“If  this isn’t fixed we’re going to lose the capability of these laboratories.  This has just got to be fixed . . . the  stakes are very, very high here.”  So  warned Charles Curtis, a member of a National Research Council committee  charged with reviewing the management and the conduct of scientific research  and engineering at the three National Security Laboratories. 

On  February 16, the Strategic Forces Subcommittee of the House Armed Services  Committee received testimony from two panels of witnesses on the management of  Los Alamos, Sandia, and Lawrence Livermore laboratories by the National Nuclear  Security Administration.  There was  uniform agreement that changes are needed, with C. Paul Robinson, of Sandia  National Laboratories describing “a system that is truly broken,” later adding  “the micromanagement is killing us.” 

The  National Nuclear Security Administration was established by Congress in 1999 to  provide, as then Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM) later explained “a clean slate”  for the management of DOE’s weapons complex.   Witnesses at the hearing testified that the outcome of the change in  management has fallen short of expectations, a sentiment shared by subcommittee  chairman Michael Turner (R-OH) who remarked in his opening comments that:

“This  hearing will examine long-standing, well-documented, and fundamental concerns  with the way NNSA manages its labs and plants --problems that are unnecessarily  costing taxpayers many hundreds of millions of dollars each year and impeding  NNSA’s ability to accomplish its mission. In today’s fiscal environment we  cannot afford such inefficiency and waste -- particularly when we’re seeing  major cuts to the pledged nuclear modernization funding in this year’s budget  request.”

Turner  intends to include provisions relating to the management of the laboratories in  the committee’s defense authorization bill that will be drafted this year

Rep  Jim Langevin (RI), the most senior Democrat at the hearing, described the  importance of implementation of management changes to retain the best  workforce, the over-riding importance of safety for workers and the public, and  the importance of transparency.  All  Members, he said, are committed to the success of NNSA and its employees. 

There  was little disagreement among the witnesses that changes are needed.  Charles Shank, co-chairman of the committee,  and Curtis described the first report of the National Research Council  Committee on Review of the Quality of the Management and of the Science and  Engineering Research at the DOE’s National Security Laboratories.  The committee released its 120-page pre-publication  report on February 15 in response to a provision in the FY 2010 Defense  Authorization Act requiring this study.

They  highlighted the committee’s recommendations in their joint testimony to the  subcommittee as follows:

“Evolution  of the Mission

“The  committee recommends that Congress recognize that maintenance of the stockpile  remains the core mission of the labs and that other national security mission  work contributes to the accomplishment of that mission and in that context the  Congress should consider endorsing and supporting in some way the evolution of  the NNSA laboratories to National Security Laboratories as described in the  July 2010 four-agency Governance Charter for an Interagency Council on the  Strategic Capability of DOE National Laboratories.

“The  committee recommends that Congress and NNSA maintain strong support of the LDRD  [Laboratory Directed Research and Development] program as it is an essential  component of enabling the long-term viability of the laboratories.

“The  committee recommends that Congress reduce the number of restrictive budget  reporting categories in the Nuclear Weapons Program and permit the use of such  funds to support a robust core weapons research program and further develop  necessary S&E [science and engineering] capability.

“Relationship  between the labs and NNSA oversight

“A  technical advisory committee, established at the NNSA level, would be a helpful  mechanism for filling this [organizational dispute resolution] gap in S&E  management. More generally, such an advisory committee could monitor progress  on other aspects of roles and responsibilities.

“The  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.

“The  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.

“The  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.

“The  Future

“The  committee recommends that NNSA, Congress, and top management of the       Laboratories  recognize that the safety and security systems at the Laboratories have been  strengthened to the point where they no longer need special attention. NNSA and  Laboratory management should explore ways by which the administrative, safety,  and security costs can be reduced over time consistent with maintaining high  quality efforts in these areas, so that they not impose an excessive burden on  essential S&E activities.”

Other  witnesses at this hearing included Eugene Aloise of the Government  Accountability Office, Michael Anastasio of Los Alamos National Laboratory and  Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and George Miller of Lawrence Livermore  National Laboratory.  Their testimony  touched on common themes: strong support for laboratory employees and the importance  of their work in areas such as stockpile stewardship, the loss of partnership  and trust, an aversion to risk, excessive oversight, unfunded requirements, and  an unstable budget outlook.  Concern was expressed  about the long-term health of scientific research and the loss of mid-range  employees at the laboratories.

In  commenting on these problems, Miller told the subcommittee:

“We  could do much more were it not for existing red tape and bureaucratic inefficiencies  in federal management and oversight of the laboratories. As a nation, we cannot  afford to waste precious R&D dollars on bureaucratic inefficiencies,  particularly at a time when the prospect is for austere budgets in the decade  ahead. For the funding provided to NNSA, the laboratories could be  accomplishing much more in nuclear security programs -- hundreds of millions of  dollars of work per year . . . . Work performed for other federal sponsors  would similarly benefit from lower work costs at the laboratories, and there  would be fewer impediments to arranging interagency work. Both factors are key  for the nation to maximize its value from the NNSA       laboratories  at time when scientific and technological advances are sorely needed to address  21st century challenges to U.S. security.”

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