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Panel Told of Brain Drain at Los Alamos

University of California officials tell a congressional panel that the exodus of scientists is due to uncertainty over management at the lab.

May 02, 2003|Rebecca Trounson | Times Staff Writer

University of California officials told a congressional subcommittee Thursday that uncertainty over a possible change in management at Los Alamos National Laboratory is producing an exodus of scientists from the UC-run nuclear weapons center.

And the situation could worsen, the officials said, after Wednesday's announcement that the Energy Department will put the Los Alamos contract up for bid when it expires in 2005.

The university has held the federal contract to run the lab -- uncontested -- for six decades, but evidence of fraud, theft and mismanagement there prompted the decision to open the contract to competitive bidding.

Members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee's investigations panel, which was meeting in Washington, expressed concern over the apparent brain drain, even as they criticized UC's recent management of Los Alamos.

"I'm very concerned about the loss of talent if the contract were to leave UC," said Rep. George Radanovich (R-Mariposa).

But UC Senior Vice President Bruce Darling told legislators that even before this week's announcement, retirements from Los Alamos and its sister nuclear weapons lab, Lawrence Livermore, so far this year stood at more than double the number for the same period last year. The figure includes 276 employees who announced their departures in April, as the decision on the lab's future loomed, UC officials said.

Darling said that of the aging cadre of about two dozen scientists at the two labs who have actually designed or tested a nuclear weapon, many "have said they are not prepared to go through a change in contractors."

But Darling said he and other UC officials hope the scientists will not leave, even if the management changes.

UC President Richard C. Atkinson, who was faced with alternately tough and supportive questions from the lawmakers, said he was not certain that the university would compete for the contract it has held since 1943.

"I do not like the idea of the word competition," an occasionally combative Atkinson said. "The university has never sought this contract. We did it as a national service."

But Atkinson, who will step down as UC president this fall, said that if the university does try to continue its management role at the lab, he does not anticipate spending the $10 million to $25 million that some have estimated such a bid might cost.

Instead, he said, UC officials would "stand on our record" at the lab. That record, he said, now includes both highly regarded science and "abysmal" business practices.

The UC president also told legislators that running the weapons facility, the birthplace of nuclear weapons, at times has been a burden on the university.

That has been especially true in recent years, he said, as the lab's mission became increasingly complex and as relations between the university and oversight officials at the Energy Department became less collegial.

Atkinson and other UC officials also have expressed concern that competing for the contract could compromise an atmosphere of academic freedom among scientists at the laboratory.

Until criteria for the new contract are determined, they said, university officials will be unable to predict whether the scientists will be able to maintain that independence.

"Very experienced, very senior people might find an environment that's less free, less open, less academic in its nature and that could be quite unattractive," UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Berdahl said Wednesday.

"I fear that [the contract] could go to some kind of commercial arrangement in which management will suppress that environment, and we will have lost a very good thing," he said.

But members of the subcommittee, which has held two previous hearings on UC's problems at Los Alamos, voiced support for the Energy Department's decision to put the contract up for bid.

Rep. James Greenwood (R-Pa.) said it was "long overdue."

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