Innovation at the National Laboratories
by Cheryl Rofer and Molly Cernicek
It seems bizarre to many people that the development and maintenance of nuclear weapons is the business of the Department of Energy. There’s a long history behind that which will be far too long for a blog post, so we hope to cram only the most relevant history into this one.
It may also seem bizarre that we claimed in our last post in this series that innovation is badly damaged at the national laboratories and that the Nuclear Posture Review devotes most of a section to improving and encouraging the weapons laboratories. Haven’t they been getting lots of money all along, even more from Obama? Haven’t the weapons scientists been treated as royalty?
The amount of money allocated is not necessarily an indicator, and, CKR having been at a national laboratory for her entire career, she can say that the entire trend over that time was downhill in being able to do research and how the scientists were treated. The weapons scientists fared somewhat better than those of us outside those protected precincts, but they don’t feel like royalty.
So what happened from the innovation of the Manhattan Project, which is where all the DOE national laboratories began, to today?
Vannevar Bush helped to organize the science and engineering that were developed during World War II. That includes The Radiation Laboratory at MIT, which developed radar, as well as nuclear weapons. He saw that well-organized groups of scientists and engineers, working with others across disciplines toward well-defined goals, could accomplish what was needed. He wrote a report on what he had learned from wartime efforts for President Truman in July 1945, “Science, The Endless Frontier.” The section headings alone are instructive. The interdisciplinary approach became the basis of the national laboratories, as well as of industrial research laboratories like the fabled Bell Labs.
The research laboratories developed across a broad spectrum after the war. During the war, research on the effects of radiation on living organisms, the chemistry and physics of the new elements and some old ones, properties of materials, and other basic science advances were necessary to build the reactors, bombs, and radar. The national laboratories added other topics like developing nuclear energy for civilian purposes, and eventually other energy sources, genetics, and large accelerators were added to the mix, along with a wide variety of scientific topics. The industrial laboratories similarly combined a broad basis of research with a focus on their objectives, resulting in both the transistor and discovery of the universe’s microwave background for Bell Labs.
Changes in the tax code undercut the ability of industry to fund the kind of research done at Bell Labs and at the same time encouraged the focus on quarterly profits we see today.
Much of the work at the national laboratories was done in large projects. Uranium resources across the United States were scouted by geologists and geochemists in the National Uranium Resource Evaluation Program. A small reactor to propel space vehicles outside the Earth’s atmosphere was developed in the Rover Program. The Hot Dry Rock Program developed ways to extract energy from geothermal sources that weren’t making steam on their own. The Jumper Program developed laser isotope separation. And there were many others.
But most of those big programs are gone now. The predominant model at the national laboratories is the principal investigator, with perhaps one or two other scientists, a couple of technicians, and maybe a postdoc or two. Just like it is in the universities. And, just as in the universities, much scientific time goes into writing proposals and submitting them to the appropriate agencies. But, less like universities (although the universities are moving in this direction), the principal investigator also must account for how funds are spent and how people in the group spend their time. Fair enough, it would seem, but the funds are actually controlled at a higher level, and the people working on their project often split their time on other projects. So funds may be transferred among projects without the principal investigator’s knowledge. The computer programs used to track time and funding frequently are difficult to use.
Scientific research gets done in the time left over from those pursuits.
Under the larger programs, scientists had roles like principal investigators, but they had fewer proposing and accounting responsibilities. It was the overall project that was accountable to the laboratory’s management, Department of Energy, and, ultimately, Congress.
The decay was gradual, and a full history has yet to be written. Some factors that contributed (as CKR observed them) seem to have been pressure on the Department of Energy from industry not to do research that “competed” with them, a shift in research ethos from valuing research that contributed to specific goals to valuing individual research that started in the universities and spread to the national laboratories, and poor actions on the part of the laboratories’ management. Industry began to complain, as privatization became more of a priority in the 1980s, that research in the national laboratories was competing with their fields at the same time that they were decreasing their investment in research. Programs were ended and never picked up by industry. The shift in research ethos probably was inevitable as people who had not experienced the efforts of the war came into management. And the poor actions included an inability on the part of managers to develop large programs while discouraging scientists who had innovations that could be developed into large programs.
The theory at the national laboratories once was that those doing non-weapons research could be called upon to work on weapons if the situation demanded. That was the bargain that CKR signed on for in 1965, the height of the Cold War. And there was a flow of ideas between the two kinds of work. Laser isotope separation would provide uranium for weapons or civilian reactors. Geology served both hot dry rock and containment of underground nuclear tests. Genetics investigated the damage radiation caused.
The two kinds of research are almost completely separate now at the national laboratories. And that does not bode well for increasing innovation nor for recruiting future nuclear weapons stewards.
Update: Frank Munger shows us that the cycle never ends. At Oak Ridge, as I noted above for Los Alamos, employees once moved around among the various functions. Also, as at Los Alamos, this became less and less the case. And now things may be going back to where they once were.