These are probably the noisiest scientific issues in the public eye today, but there are others: understanding evidence of nuclear proliferation and what to do about the dysfunctional nuclear weapons complex, for two. Although the science may not always be central, it bears on the decisions.
Certainly the Bush administration, along with some of its allies, is attacking science and other sources of independent judgment. Science education could be better. The media prizes controversy over factuality. But those aren’t the arguments I want to make right now.
What I want to focus on is the scientists’ part in the discussion, their difficulty in making their work and results clear.
This piece has grown to a considerable length, so I’ll break it into three pieces: the nondiscussion of choosing a private-sector manager for the Los Alamos nuclear weapon design laboratory; global warming, and evolution. Each of these illustrates a different problem. I’ll probably write a summary at the end, too.
The contract to run the Los Alamos National Laboratory is being decided. Two organizations, both combines of universities and defense contractors, have bid. This marks a change, an enormous change, in the way America’s nuclear weapons design laboratories are managed.
The University of California has managed Los Alamos since its beginning in 1943. It also manages the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. These two laboratories design all the country’s nuclear weapons. Sandia National Laboratories, in Albuquerque and Livermore, don’t design weapons. They do the engineering that is necessary to mate the weapons to the military’s delivery systems. Sandia began as a part of Los Alamos, was managed by Bell Labs for a while, and is now managed by Lockheed Martin, part of one of the combines bidding for Los Alamos.
At various times in Los Alamos’s history, the argument was made that nuclear weapons were a routine part of the country’s arsenal, and that routine could be turned over to private industry. The counterarguments were that introducing a profit motive into the nuclear weapons business could badly distort the process of determining the needs for such weapons, and that there should be a wall separating nuclear weapons from the freer international trade in conventional weapons.
The contract has been renewed with the University of California every five years. This time, the Department of Energy competed the contract and required that the bidders be combinations of universities and private companies in a corporation that is separate from those organizations. There’s been little to no discussion of the implications of this enormous change for the country at large.
Doug Roberts, then a Laboratory employee, now retired, began a blog, part of the purpose of which was supposedly to discuss the future of the Laboratory. I posted a few comments, and one or two others have, on the broader issues involved. Nobody has taken the topics up. Nobody is taking political action. Here’s a link to the blog, but I don’t recommend it. It’s mostly whining and character assassination of disliked managers, along with an almost religious hope that Lockheed will make everything okay when they win the contract.
[As I’ve been developing this post, Doug has been coming to the conclusion that his blog needs to change. He has eliminated anonymous comments and sounds like he is about to pull the plug.]
An internet editor from Physics Today e-mailed me to suggest that I rewrite one of those comments as a letter to the editor of the print magazine. I did and received a form e-mail back saying that he would “have it reviewed, a process that could take from a few days to several weeks.” That was in mid-August. I guess it’s taking several weeks, because I still haven’t heard from them.
I don’t care if my letter is published or not, but take a look at the latest Physics Today table of contents. Do you see any discussion of a private firm taking over one of the nation’s two nuclear weapons design laboratories?
Of course, it’s a bit late. The time for discussion was when the DOE was deciding on whether and how to compete the contract. The discussion at that time was primarily by and about the New Mexico congressional delegation.
I don’t understand this silence. The original Los Alamos scientists, working flat out, managed to discuss the implications of their work, petition, and organize to place their political ideas before the public and the people in power. This time around, Los Alamos employees and the wider physics community seem to be activly avoiding discussion.