Inside the Capitol

Wednesday, August 04, 2004

LANL Cowboy Scientists

SANTA FE -- President George W. Bush isn't the only one accused of being a cowboy these days. It's also being used in reference to scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
First, in defense of cowboys, those I've known are hard-working, conscientious guys. But when used in reference to President Bush, it is more the movie version of wild west, swaggering gunslingers that his mostly-European critics have in mind. And why not? The only cowboys Europeans know about are in the movies.
Critics of the LANL scientists see cowboys as arrogant iconoclasts who view security and safety rules as a joke. How in the world did cowboys ever got such a bad reputation?
Whether cowboys or not, Los Alamos scientists are currently in a heap of trouble, charged by their longtime benefactor Sen. Pete Domenici with being dysfunctional and politically untouchable after a series of security infractions that have resulted in missing hard drives, computer disks, fraud, mismanagement and espionage.
Much of the “cowboy” problem is attributed to what many call “the culture of science” that values openness and collegiality as more important than secrecy. Scientists say they are at their creative best when they can bounce ideas off each other to jointly develop solutions. I can attest that it certainly helps when creating a column.
The battle between science and security has gone on for some time. In the matter of nuclear energy, it began at Los Alamos in the 1940s between Dr. Robert Oppenheimer, head of the University of California’s science team and Gen. Leslie Groves, head of the military component at Los Alamos. Their legendary struggles were made into a movie.
That dichotomy has continued as Los Alamos scientists have reveled in their close-knit, campus-like environment in a remote location that allows isolation from the real world. Eighteen months ago, after many security lapses, retired Navy Admiral Pete Nanos was sent in to shape things up as the lab’s new director.
That didn’t especially please the scientists. Since then LANL has come to be described as a hotbed of discord and revolt. Scientists complain that managers have become preoccupied with minor security problems.
But according to some lab managers, many of those security problems aren't minor. One even tells me that in his opinion, Dr. Wen Ho Lee was guilty of all 59 charges against him, but the problem is that many other scientists at the lab are just as guilty.
LANL's reputation as the crown jewel among our many national laboratories is becoming tarnished. Why should security be so much worse at Los Alamos than at other national labs? One answer is that Los Alamos scientists have less contact with universities and private corporations than employees at other labs.
That isolation causes them to feel little need for following security rules. So data storage devices go AWOL and don't always show up again behind the copy machine. Espionage isn't really feared to be the problem. It's likely just scientists taking disks out of the office for a little homework, combined with sloppy record-keeping when data is destroyed.
But managers say the scientists arrogantly deny the problem, failing to grasp that the lab's very existence could be at stake. They won't say exactly what sort of data is missing, just that it is critical to our national security. It has led comedians to joke that there is little wonder we can't find Saddam's weapons of mass destruction, when we can't even find our own.
It appears as though the tide may have turned against the Los Alamos scientists. Their contention that the people running the lab are more interested in security than science is beginning to fall on deaf ears, despite a clever new bumper sticker many of them are sporting on their cars: "Striving for a Work-Free Safe Zone."
But such jokes aren't likely to go over until all the missing tapes are found. Maybe they should check Sandy Berger's socks.


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