Magazine article Issues in Science and Technology , Vol. 20, No. 1
In the wake of several years of controversy about the national weapons labs, DOE has said that for the first time, competitive bidding will be used when the contract with the University of California (UC) to manage and operate Los Alamos National Laboratory expires in 2005. In addition, the House has added a rider to an appropriations bill that requires competition for some other DOE labs as well.
A host of problems has resulted in intense scrutiny of the labs. Allegations of espionage; lost hard drives containing classified information; and, most recently, accusations of financial mismanagement have hit Los Alamos. Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, also managed by UC, has faced controversy over alleged security lapses and cost overruns during construction of the National Ignition Facility.
In an attempt to shore up the security of classified weapons programs, Congress in 2000 created the National Nuclear Security Administration, a semi-autonomous agency within DOE, to oversee the nation's nuclear weapons complex, including Los Alamos and Livermore. However, the reorganization failed to quell controversy about the labs, and criticism flared up late last year when allegations of financial abuses at Los Alamos prompted the resignation of the lab's director and management reviews by UC and DOE.
The origin of the relationship between UC and DOE dates to 1942, when Los Alamos was founded by J. Robert Oppenheimer, a UC Berkeley physicist who led the Manhattan Project, the secret federal research program to develop an atomic bomb. The following year, UC agreed to manage the facility for the federal government. Thus, a partnership was created to run Los Alamos as a government-owned contractor-operated (GOCO) laboratory. The partnership allowed the lab to benefit from the university's ability to draw talent, even as it worked on such an inherently governmental function as nuclear weapons development. The GOCO model was adopted at numerous other government labs.
Ever since UC took over Los Alamos in 1943 and Livermore in 1952, the management contracts between the university and the government have always been renewed. But in the aftermath of each scandal, critics have called for opening the contracts to competition.
"Periodic competition should be normal," said Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.), the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, at a May 1 hearing. "But the pressure of competitive bidding, one of the most powerful cleansers of management problems, has never really bore down on those responsible for the [Los Alamos] lab's contract."
Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), a staunch supporter of the labs, has also expressed support for competition. "We all know that the present manner in which the laboratory is managed must change in ways that are inevitable," he said in an April speech at Los Alamos. "I worry that the attacks on Los Alamos will only intensify if we do not take dramatic action to improve the lab's management and reputation."
Others, however, worry that the uncertainty surrounding competition and the possibility of losing UC's generous employee benefits could lower morale at the lab and cause a wave of retirements, hindering the lab's scientific work. …