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National CrossTalk Fall 1999
News Editorial Other Voices Interview

5 of 7 Stories

Life Goes On at Los Alamos
National lab focuses on new projects after two difficult years

By Carl Irving
Los Alamos, New Mexico

During recruiting visits to Princeton, MIT and CalTech last fall, students snapped up freshly printed leaflets describing national security as the major mission of the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Prepared at the urging of staff physicist Bob Benjamin, the new lures replaced small traditional posters which had proclaimed hopefully, “Science Is My Life.”

At Princeton, where the biological sciences are a noted field of study, a number of students asked Benjamin about war-related studies.

“I told them that biological threats were part of overall research in the bio-sciences at Los Alamos,” he said. “They kept coming at me for five hours.” The number of inquiries about jobs at Los Alamos has increased significantly after two bad years, Benjamin said.

The lab faces an immediate need: several hundred additional scientists, engineers and technicians. It expects to lose close to 500 employees this year, mostly to retirement, just as the federal government looks to it for more help in preventing terrorism.

Los Alamos and a second unit at Livermore, California, are the nation’s two main nuclear weapons laboratories, funded by the federal government and managed by the University of California. Each is staffed with about 7,000 UC employees, mostly scientists and engineers. The two billiondollar budgets include funding for large and growing amounts of secret research labeled “threat reduction.”

The attacks on the United States last September, a recession which slowed competitive hiring, and heightened demands for security all helped raise hopes for the future among a range of scientists and engineers interviewed here. Prospects, they said, looked brighter not only for hiring promising young talent, but also for keeping experts and improving morale.

Recruiting and retention had sagged, along with morale, during two bad years, beginning in 1999 with the arrest and incarceration of staff engineer Wen Ho Lee on charges of spying for China.That in turn had fanned wider suspicions in Washington about Los Alamos regarding lax security in general, and scientists of Chinese ancestry in particular. Congress responded by ordering a hiring freeze, just as growing numbers of employees were qualifying for retirement.

The following May, a “controlled burn” by the National Park Service got out of hand and destroyed 43,000 acres, forcing evacuation of the nearby town of Los Alamos, where the majority of UC employees live. The fire destroyed homes of more than 400 people, most of them lab employees and their families.

At one point the fire had threatened the heart of the lab, and secret files were moved to protect them from the flames. Later, scientists could not account for two computer hard drives containing classified data about nuclear weapons.That launched yet another drawn-out investigation, amid more unproven suspicions of espionage and carelessness, accompanied by renewed demands for widespread lie detector tests. The files later were found intact, stashed behind a copy machine.

Four months later, an apologetic judge released Lee from jail, after he had spent nine months in solitary confinement. The impact of Lee’s case, along with criticisms of security measures and unproven suspicions about other employees, still reverberates here.

“The Lee case has a legacy, particularly over trust issues,” said Benjamin, an honored employee who has devoted most of his career to nuclear weapons research.

A task force was formed last fall, with Benjamin as an advisory member, to support efforts to hire additional technical staff. “It’s the first time higher-level management has made allocations for recruiting, along with planning and feedback,” he said.The effort now appears to be showing signs of success.

The most crucial need is for more “postdocs” —men and women who have completed their doctoral work in the sciences and engineering. They have long been a major source of professional employees here, but the number of applicants has dropped by 25 percent over the past two years.

“We’ve had an awful year, and we’re not fully out of it, but we’ve dealt with most of the concerns,” said James L. Holt, associate director for operations and weapons.

“We have learned to live with some of the systems that were put in place, and work more effectively again,” said Paul C. White, program manager for Russian non-proliferation programs. His own operations, he said, which depend on working continuously and closely with Russian scientists to safeguard nuclear stockpiles and their components from theft, have been operating smoothly.

White now is subject to polygraph tests, and says that there is “still some anxiety among the staff about random testing, and how they will be treated if incidents occur. Security is ultimately built on trust. That’s the best security there is. Not a lie detector test.”

 
  John McTague, a University of California vice president, is credited with improving relations between the UC-run labs and the federal government.
His hopes for a more secure future were boosted last September 11: “When I got to work, I was deluged with e-mail from our colleagues in Russia expressing sympathy and pledging more ways to work together to prevent this kind of thing from happening again.”

White said the Bush administration, “which might have been more skeptical, now sees prospects for short- and longterm cooperation with the Russians in preventing nuclear material from falling into terrorists’ hands.”

There are other signs of better times at the lab. Last summer, for the first time, students from Russia were cleared for work at White’s office. And his support groups once more are able to hire qualified people.

White said he was relieved that the ties to the University of California, which has managed the lab for all of its 58 years, remain in place, after growing concerns that the contract would not be extended. Last winter, rumors had circulated here, and at UC headquarters, that under a hostile Bush administration, government responsibility would be shifted from the Department of Energy (DOE) to the Pentagon, and that management would be transferred either to a private defense contractor, such as Lockheed Martin, or the University of Texas.

None of that happened. The new administration extended the UC contract for four more years, after the university had agreed—following several months of talks with the Clinton administration—to take a more active role in managing and securing the lab.

Los Alamos was created secretly for scientists from UC Berkeley and elsewhere to develop nuclear weapons during the height of the Second World War. And it always has been a place apart, because of the secret nature of its research and also because of its lonely location.Thus, continuing ties with one of the most prestigious state university systems is especially important, employees interviewed here said.

“It helps me, personally and professionally,” White said. “The university connection helps us bring in new people.” His staff, like many others here, shares consultation and research with UC. “We tap into what people are thinking about and there’s interaction, cross-fertilization,” he said.“We consider ourselves university employees. We think it’s a good relationship.”

“I can tell you the one resonating thread for all people my age is that if the UC contract goes, we’re leaving,” said Michelle Espy, a young nuclear physicist who became a permanent staff member last year. “The academic atmosphere UC provides is crucial,” she said.

Most of the highly trained scientists and engineers—almost entirely from other states and nations—live near the lab, partly because Santa Fe, the nearest city, is an hour away.

Beyond the lab’s uninviting barriers and the mix of old, decrepit buildings and grim new gray concrete structures—one of which soon will contain the world’s most powerful high-speed computer—there is only a small commercial area and employees’ housing tracts. Vast uninhabited hills and valleys stretch in all directions.

Women who work here have mixed feelings about the setting and the large number of highly trained, frequently single male scientists and engineers, most of whom seem wedded to their projects. There’s a commonly shared joke among women, who are outnumbered two to one at the lab: “the odds are good, but the goods are odd.”

In an effort to become less forbidding to the rest of New Mexico, one of the nation’s poorest states, with severe education problems, the lab recently appointed Rae Lee Siporin, formerly undergraduate admissions director at UCLA, to help more New Mexico students prepare for college.

Siporin will try to “build connections” between the lab and UC campuses and New Mexico school administrators and teachers, kindergarten through college,UC announced.

Last spring, to make good on its new deal with the DOE, the university for the first time appointed a vice president for laboratory relations—John McTague—to be solely responsible for lab management. The 62-year-old McTague’s credentials were ideal for the new national political configuration. After receiving his Ph.D. at Brown University,McTague had begun his career as chemistry professor at UCLA. He later was a vice president for Ford Motor Company and a science adviser to Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

To fulfill the new agreement, UC appointed panels of outside experts to advise on lab security and management. Steven E. Koonin, vice president and provost at CalTech, is chair of the security panel. Members include former CIA and FBI officials.

McTague spent his first six months in office last year traveling constantly between Los Alamos and the other weapons lab managed by UC at Livermore, California, and Washington, D.C. The DOE, he said, has agreed to curtail what had been a “proliferation of directives on how to do things, as opposed to what to do,” such as “how to screw in a light bulb in a plutonium facility.There was a document literally on how to screw in a light bulb. This is not something conducive to productivity.” The directive has been rescinded.

The goal, McTague said, is to “get back to integrated safety management, where individuals are accountable for their actual safety results, as opposed to conforming to a procedure arrived at by somebody in Washington,D.C.”The DOE’s security unit supported this, he said, by ordering that the number of its directives be reduced by 50 percent.

“Everything’s much better because of the new vice president,” said associate director Holt. “We’ve never had someone at this level with the ability to meet with the president of UC or the head of security at the DOE or even somebody in President Bush’s office if necessary.” Before McTague’s appointment, administrative ties with UC often had been restricted to “a lot of lip service at the high level,”Holt said.“What changed is that all of a sudden they take real positions, taking stronger roles than before.”

Threat reduction research has gained a great deal of attention at Los Alamos recently. Last fall, Don Cobb, associate director for threat reduction, formed a “9- 11 Response Team,” to spur production of useful tests and products and more effectively respond to urgent federal requests for help.

To expand such studies, the labs “don’t have to reinvent themselves,” McTague said.“They’ve been getting ready for a situation the rest of us haven’t been thinking much about.”

Threat reduction research involves about 1,000 staff members supported by a $300 million annual federal budget. The staff includes 160 physicists, 220 engineers, 44 computer scientists and 30 chemists. For many years, scientists like Paul White have helped train inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency to detect and measure technology, and to give advice on protecting the growing number of nuclear plants around the world.

One of the few public descriptions about such research here seeks to illustrate the need: Eight kilograms of plutonium, about the size of a grapefruit, can create an explosion comparable to the blast that destroyed Hiroshima in 1945.

Los Alamos helped develop hand-held monitors to detect such hidden materials at airport and customs checkpoints.

Biothreat reduction research has been going on for many years here. In 1979, federal agents used a DNA test developed at Los Alamos to help detect a lethal form of anthrax, which had leaked from a secret Soviet plant and killed many nearby residents.

More recently, working with researchers at Livermore and Northern Arizona University, Los Alamos helped develop tools to analyze DNA to identify anthrax, plague and other potentially lethal diseases. That helped to provide quicker analyses of anthrax cases discovered in the United States last fall.

Los Alamos researchers developed remote sensing techniques which can be applied to search “the remotest corners of the universe or caves or tunnels in Afghanistan,” said Galen R. Gisler, an astrophysicist who has been here for 20 years. “Some members of our team have been thinking about the latter since September 11,” he said.

“A lot of people, myself included, now feel some patriotic obligation to stay,” Michelle Espy said. Some of her research involves threat reduction. Last year, she and her husband, also a staff physicist, had hunted for other jobs, and got offers for academic positions outside the lab. They decided to stay, because they felt that morale was improving.

 
Theoretical physicist Shao-Ping Chen, shown holding a model of a silicon molecule, doubts that his friend Wen Ho Lee was involved in espionage.  
“I’ve bumped into a lot of people who said the same:‘Yeah, I looked around, I got an offer, and I decided to stay,’” Espy said. “The message I get is, ‘If things continue to improve, we stay; if one more thing goes wrong, we leave.’

“After Wen Ho Lee and the fire, people were pretty messed up, felt pretty kicked around and unclear about the future…They do what they do because they really love it and believe in it. And when they believe they’re not being supported, I think it’s a real let down. I think they take it personally. I know I do.And so, a lot of people felt pretty depressed.”

But, like White and others who have been here longer, Espy agrees that in the post-Lee environment, “everyone is more careful about security.” She added, “I think the overshoot on security stuff has started to settle into something that is reasonable. It made a difference. People started to feel things were getting back to normal.”

But that normalcy may not include scientists and engineers of Asian descent or birth.

Post-docs in those categories dropped from about 25 percent of the total hired in the early 1990s to less than 17 percent last year, according to the National Science Foundation. That worries management, because the largest fraction of foreign post-docs with scientific and engineering backgrounds in the U.S. now come from China, followed by India and Russia.

With shrinking numbers of Americans earning advanced science degrees, Los Alamos, in competition with other labs and many campuses, has increasingly depended on postdocs from abroad to make up the difference. Last year, 56 percent of the post-docs at Los Alamos were foreign citizens. Lab records do not distinguish between domestic and foreign-born U.S. citizens.

“We see more and more people from Asia doing the real technical, the real hard stuff,” said Gisler, who strongly supports hiring more scientists with foreign training. “You need an influx of ideas and talent,” he said. “It’s almost like this has become the new menial labor we leave to immigrants…[It] reminds me of the later years of the Roman empire, when all the engineers were Visigoths.”

Efforts to change the downward trend in attracting post-docs of Asian descent are under way. The number offered jobs last year nearly doubled; offers to post-docs from China increased from 28 in 2000 to 48 last year.

In an interview with Asian Week last year, Los Alamos Director John Browne blamed “the implication” that the lab tolerated racial profiling on espionage investigations by federal agencies. He said he was “outraged” by wild rumors at the time, such as one claiming that there were many Chinese restaurants in town because there was a spy ring at the lab.

 
  Galen R. Gisler, an astrophysicist who has worked at Los Alamos for 20 years, thinks the lab should hire more foreign-trained scientists.
Browne, lab director since 1997, has said repeatedly that he did not fire Lee in 1999 because of his race, but for security reasons—for removing thousands of pages of secret files about nuclear weapons from the lab system and later being unable to account for some of them—and not because of his race.

In September 2000, Lee was released on a year’s probation, after the judge said that his treatment had “embarrassed this entire nation.” Prosecutors dropped 58 charges, and Lee pleaded guilty to a single felony count of mishandling nuclear secrets. A year-old Justice Department report on the case, made public last summer, blamed the FBI and the DOE for a “slapdash” investigation. Lee’s version of events has just been published.

“I would not imagine him involved in espionage,” said Shao-Ping Chen, a theoretical physicist on the Los Alamos staff for 16 years. Like his friend Lee, Chen is a native of Taiwan, and a naturalized American citizen.

“He likes to fish and listen to classical music, and do gardening. He leads a very simple life,” Chen said. “Apparently he didn’t follow all the rules; my guess is he should be disciplined. But whether he deserved to be treated that way, I don’t think so.”

Chen took part in a campaign last year to question the lab’s fairness in salaries and promotions for those of Asian backgrounds. Browne appointed him to the newly formed Los Alamos Asian-Pacific Islander Career Enhancement task force, and Chen himself was promoted to manager for computational sciences and software, with a staff of 120 people.

Chen conceded that the situation “may be slightly better,” since last year, when he was subjected to three interviews by the FBI about his friendship with Lee and contacts with his relatives on Taiwan. He believes his personal background held up processing for 19 months, until last summer, before he received permission to have access to classified material.

He has mixed feelings about an informal employment boycott against the lab organized by a number of Asian American scientists and scholars, headed by Ling-chi L.Wang, associate professor of ethnic studies at UC Berkeley. “It brought attention to the problem,” Chen admitted. But he does not favor a “long-term” boycott.

The task force chair, Maurenda K. Dubey, an atmospheric chemist and native of India, said he believed that the lab has improved the situation. “Things are stabilizing,” he said, citing more promotions and hirings of Asians. But, he added, “there are still worried professors who tell their students ‘don’t go there,’ and the boycott is still hurting us,” he said.Wang’s group has not formally retracted the boycott.

An independent firm, hired to investigate questions of salary disparities between Asians and others, concluded last May that there were no significant differences. An investigation by the DOE’s inspector general found that scientists of Asian descent seeking security clearances were not subject to racial profiling during the Lee case. The Justice Department has concluded that there was no evidence of racial bias in the handling of Lee’s case.

But Browne said that Dubey’s task force revealed “barriers that we were not aware of.They were subtle things. It wasn’t bias.A lot of our Asian scientists and engineers are really good…[but] the culture doesn’t push them to say, ‘Consider me for management.’ And they told me this.They said, ‘Look, we were raised differently; we don’t sometimes push ourselves.”

Management training programs have been started for Asians at the lab, and a career scientist, Ping Lee, has been named Browne’s special assistant to concentrate on hiring and promotion issues involving staff members of Asian backgrounds. Lisa Gutierrez, head of a new Diversity Office here, said that “from the managerial perspective, more leaders at the lab are engaged on the issue.”

 
Atmospheric chemist Maurenda K. Dubey chairs a task force examining salary and promotion policies at the Los Alamos lab.  
Such efforts have been bolstered by the fact that the string of events that once led people here to foresee nothing but dire prospects has faded away,McTague said.

Employee surveys mostly support that conclusion. Last year, for example, employees responded that they generally were proud to be with the lab and were satisfied with their work. The results, from 47 percent of the UC employees here, showed more positive attitudes compared with the last survey in 1999. But there was one exception: In 1999, 53 percent responded that productivity had increased; last year, that percentage fell to 46 percent. A similar drop was registered at Livermore last year.

McTague called that a troubling perception, but said he believed that the improved ties to Washington should help restore optimism at the labs. Besides, he added, “Times have changed. There’ve been no incidents in the past year. Under the circumstances, it is less likely to get people breathing down your neck.”

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