Six months from now, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory will have a new director. It just won’t be an easy decision.
The Committee to Advise the President on the Selection of a Director for Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory met Monday to discuss the criteria for choosing a new lab director. The old director, Bruce Tarter, stepped down after serving the second longest term in the lab’s history. The committee met for most of the day in closed session with employees at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which is administered by the University of California and the United States Department of Energy. The committee also held an open session and invited public comment on the desirable criteria for a laboratory director. Though some of the comments were optimistic, most were scathing criticisms of the laboratory’s current management and policies.
Appointing a new director for LLNL is similar to the process used in appointing chancellors to UC schools. The UC president and board of regents appoint an advisory committee to suggest a new director. The committee confers and eventually makes a recommendation to the president, who then submits the name of the nominee to the board of regents for approval.
The primary difference between the appointment process for LLNL and the procedure for appointing new chancellors is that once the decision has been made by the UC, the U.S. Department of Energy must then concur with the nomination before the new director can be appointed.
“This is a very important decision, not just for the lab, but for the community here as well because the lab is such a big piece of that community,” said John McTague, the UC vice president of laboratory management. “It’s very important to get their perspective in picking a new lab director.”
The community is not happy. During the public comment session, Sue Byars, an employee of LLNL, said the laboratory is a haven for discrimination, racial profiling and pay inequity.
“[Employees display] a deep distrust of the ranking and salary determination process,” said Jeff Colvin, a physicist and the elected president of the Society of Professional Scientists and Engineers at LLNL.
“It is vitally important for the future viability of the lab and for the security of the nation that the new director assign the same high priority to the goal of improving the working environment at the lab as is assigned to matters concerning relations between the lab and the University and the Department of Energy,” Colvin said.
He recommended that a new director engage in a major reform of rankings at LLNL, as well as a comprehensive review of salaries.
According to many of the speakers, the morale of LLNL employees is extremely low.
“It is necessary that [LLNL’s] next director be primarily an advocate for employees,” LLNL employee Manuel Garcia said. “Such a director would have a compelling vision, not just ambition, intellectual honesty, high tolerance for dissent, a policy of the widest inclusion and a willingness to take public stands on behalf of employees, even when those views are contrary to those of official patrons and political policy. That is the type of director I want, which is quite the opposite of the directors I have observed for two decades.”
Other speakers complained about the science management policies at LLNL. Elbert Branscomb, an LLNL employee since 1964 and a physicist turned biologist, said that the laboratory should shift its resources in favor of the life sciences, rather than fall behind in that field.
“It’s going to be a very difficult transition,” he said.
LLNL employee Bo Pitsker said that as research has diversified at LLNL, outdated management policies have become a problem for the laboratory. He said employees at the lab had become closed-minded to outside ways of doing things and invited the committee to look for a new director outside LLNL.
Representatives from Tri-Valley Cares, a local activist group made up of lab employees and community members who disagree with nuclear weapons research at LLNL, also appeared at the public comment session.
Marylia Kelley, a spokesperson for Tri-Valley CAREs (Communities Against a Radioactive Environment), berated the laboratory for announcing that the National Ignition Facility, a test facility for nuclear weapons research, was back on schedule. She said by continuing NIF research, LLNL was further committing itself to nuclear weapons research.
“We’ve watched the lab box itself into a narrow nuclear weapons design future. … Serious underlying technical problems [with NIF] remain unsolved,” she said. “Even at six years behind schedule, NIF will fall even further behind … and while NIF is several billion dollars over budget, using the U.S. General Accounting Office figures, the costs are likely to continue to soar.”
After the public comment session, the advisory committee reconvened in closed session to meet with other LLNL employees concerning the best criteria for a new lab director.
“We want to learn as much as possible about people’s concerns and what they want in a lab director,” UC Academic Council Chair Chand Viswanathan said. “It’s more like a fact-finding session before we start looking at individuals.”