Belmont Club

Looking Back at the Future

The imagery is right out of the Time Machine: a landscape dotted with the reminders of a once great era.  Washington Post describes how “the Obama administration is supporting bipartisan legislation in Congress that would designate sites in Oak Ridge; Hanford, Wash.; and Los Alamos, N.M., as national parks.”  These labs, which once represented the future are now reminders of the past. Their fate represents the effect of the loss of its original mission. Their current funding structure represents the jobs they’ve had to take in to keep their people emploed.

Today, thousands of scientists work in those labs on unrelated research, developing pioneering technologies used for Mars exploration, chemotherapy, whole-body X-ray scanning at airports, high-speed computers and biotechnology.

Much of the old government energy lab empire is lost. Plans to turn them into park-like museums are just confirmations of that fact. “It’s really cool. It’s very nostalgic,” a visitor said. That’s about all you can say.

In June of this year, the Senate Energy and National Resources committee held a hearing on whether the energy labs ought not to return to working on energy. Ranking Member Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) said:

“It is time for us to renew a coherent long-term approach to energy development, truly an all of the above approach. Innovation, of course, is absolutely at the core of that strategy. I think it is one of the few areas where the government can and should be providing greater funding and at the same time, I am aware if we do decide to spend more on energy innovation, we are going to have to make some very difficult choices about the amount of spending and the duration as well as what our priorities are for it.”

Maybe more government funding can bring them back to life. But some critics of the energy bureaucracy see these efforts as akin to trying to revive a corpse. The labs are said to be demoralized, mismanaged and perhaps even infiltrated by foreign spies. Maybe it’s better to start all over again. The decline of the labs became noticeable in the last decade of the 20th century. In 1994 the LA Times reported the cancellation of their mission as good news because now they could turn their talents away from evil, warlike efforts to something more politically correct.

A FUTURE WITHOUT BOMBS: Science Labs Searching for a New Mission.

Welcome as it is, the end of the Cold War has spelled bad news for the nation’s nuclear bomb designers and makers. Their highly skilled services are no longer in great demand. But they have a golden opportunity to prove, despite past failures, that it is possible to convert U.S. weapons brainpower to peacetime needs. It should not be lost.

The federally owned national labs are undergoing painful transitions, their budgets shrinking, their raison d’etre questioned. The labs are run by the Department of Defense, NASA and the Department of Energy. The conversion question is sharpest at the three energy labs that design and build nuclear weapons–Lawrence Livermore in California and Los Alamos and Sandia in New Mexico.

While they were busy looking for a new mission, they were kept employed by focusing on environmental cleanup.

The labs’ most obvious task is in cleaning up the environmental mess left by nuclear bomb production or testing in Colorado, Texas, Nevada and Washington state. Whatever they wind up doing, though, the labs face a difficult cultural change. Even as they try to be more open, secrecy remains an impediment to outside cooperation and many top scientists are handicapped, never having been able to publish. But the nation must not overlook the powerful resource represented by the labs. As Roger W. Werne, Livermore’s associate director for engineering and technology transfer, puts it, “People here passionately want to have a defined mission.” It is to the nation’s and California’s benefit to give them that.

But didn’t work out to the degree necessary to keep them focused. And now parts of that old energy lab empire are facing conversion to parks. At the time it seemed like an era of new beginnings. “Energy Secretary Hazel O’Leary speaks of using them to enhance American economic competitiveness through “technology transfer.” It was admitted that there were going to be some problems.

These bureaucratic terms are easier to say than define. Reis talks of turning the labs to civilian tasks that complement military ones, using “core competencies” in computer, instrumentation and laser technology. For example, Livermore’s massive computational skills have proved useful to biological research on mapping the human genome. Livermore points to the work of Roger Aines and Robin Newmark, who use the lab’s expertise in high-temperature physics and underground imaging to clean up gasoline pollution of the water table. Sandia applies infrared technology to recycling plastic containers; Los Alamos has turned its powerful lasers to air pollution problems.

Nobody could foresee just how major these problems would be. It turned out the mission of recycling plastic containers wasn’t enough. But the question remains: will giving the labs more federal money bring them back to life? Or is it really better, as in the case of NASA, to take an entirely different approach, to start over? In the end it maybe best to leave the whole era in the past and to begin from first principles.


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