The beginning of the end of the National Laboratories?
If the National Laboratories helped win the Cold War, then where's our parade? — David Dearborn, 1992As of 2007 Bell Labs is really most sincerely dead, the remaining employees (of what was once more than 20,000) belonging to Alcatel/Lucent, a French company. The name Bell Laboratories is retained as a marketing fiction.And now, the National Laboratories (Los Alamos, Livermore, Sandia, Argonne, Brookhaven, etc.), have been privatized by an act of Congress. "We will make sure that this will not hurt these Jewels in the Crown of American R&D," say members of Congress, the DOE, and their staffs. Well, been there, heard that. It's bullshit. It's what they used to say about Bell Labs when they broke up AT&T. Which was swallowed and used to re-brand SBC, formerly known as Southwestern Bell.
The Republic has no use for scientists. — slogan at Antoine Lavoisier's trial in revolutionary Paris, 1794
The Jewel in the Crown
Bell Telephone Laboratories is dead. The Phoenix risen from its ashes is called AT&T Bell Laboratories, a new name for a new corporate culture distinguished by the short leash that now holds research in check. You see, research costs money, which is scarce now that AT&T is no longer a regulated monopoly with a guaranteed income from the "rate base," a term that indirectly meant you and me. So the management works harder to pick possible winners early on -- which means that it is better to do nothing than to do something that might be useless, which in turn means that most Bell Labs people don't do research anymore.
Moreover, Bell Labs isn't even managed by Bell Labs managers. Just two levels up from the working troops, or "Members of Technical Staff," the managers are listed as AT&T Network Operations or as Lucent Technologies. The top echelon of the Labs are essentially like old switching equipment that is too expensive to move when new equipment is installed — they are RIP, or "retired in place." But whether retired or active, all AT&T-BL managers embrace the new commandment: "Thou shalt have no other goals before the bottom line."
It was inevitable once the company was divested of its local telephone business. The changes make good business sense, and almost everyone at the Labs will tell you that what is happening there now is better than the chaos of the years just after 1984, when the break-up took place.
The problem is that the new Bell Labs now rarely tries the long shots, the revolutionary ideas that sometimes create whole new industries, because they are too great a short-term business risk. What was once described as one of the Crown Jewels of American Research has become just another industrial R&D lab. Which means emphasis on D — Development, and a back seat for Research. It's fine, really. It's just that everyone involved, including the government and AT&T senior management, said it wouldn't happen.
They were wrong. And the government is about to be wrong again. The government thinks that defense conversion in the form of small, short term projects won't hurt research at the National Laboratories.
The Hand that Rocks the CRADA
The Bell Labs conversion is part of a wholesale flight of American Industry from long term research that has been brought to you by changed economic conditions interacting with securities regulations favoring short term business strategy. We live in the "do it now" culture of immediacy. This originally business culture has pervaded government as well. Congress will "do it now" provided it is politically popular, as is defense conversion.
Now defense conversion of the National Laboratories is currently more like defense destruction, because they are told to "do it now" in the form of relatively small budget, short term Cooperative Research and Development Agreements (CRADAs), which paradoxically, the DOE seems to take forever to approve. A CRADA is a partnership between a private corporation and a National Laboratory in which the corporation and the DOE each put up half the money to pay for some quick D -- development, which results in a few months to a year or two, in some product or process for sale by the corporation.
The destruction comes about because the powers that be can delude themselves into thinking that CRADAs are a substitute for the long-term, stable, mission-oriented research that the National Labs do best. Each CRADA harvests the fruit of decades of research, without providing for planting and raising the next crop of ideas. In other words, if CRADAs become a major mission of the National Laboratories, they will be taken over by the culture of immediacy, of short term projects with a quick payoff, to the detriment of their present corporate culture that enables them to take on long-term, high-risk/high-reward, large-scale research on problems of national or global importance.
But then, there are no such problems, and big science is bad, right? Well, there's a lot of big science behind your telephone, behind the pharmaceuticals you take, behind attempts to cure AIDS and various genetic disorders. And behind all those CRADAs that will help our industry be a little more competitive, to the extent that competitiveness is a function of R&D rather than managerial competence.
To keep big science going at the National Laboratories, all it takes is a small set of clear missions, and some stable funding, which has to come, like it or not, from us taxpayers. What missions? I nominate human genome research, global change research, the old standby of defense research (including nuclear weapons research, unless you want America to get caught with its pants down some day), and real industrial research. Of course, that last one will require something our leadership fears to define — a national industrial research policy. Without such missions and such policy, the hand that rocks the CRADA may rule the laboratory. And that hand has no eye for the long term.
The Koehler Method of TQM
"Oooooof!" On wet grass at either end of a leash lay my wife and our Great Dane. You see, the Koehler Method1 of teaching your dog to pay attention to you is to put it on a long leash and just go. When the dog runs in a direction other than the one you're going, it gets yanked off its feet. Of course, if the grass is slippery, you take a fall, too. To a dog, this is leadership.
It's also the way our government sometimes leads the National Laboratories. Rather than engage in substantive discussion with the labs over missions and priorities, they just jerk the funding/regulatory leash. The current rules earmarking nuclear testing (if we ever test again at all) for only safety and security comprise one example. The endless inspections of minute details of lab procedures are another — as of this writing, inspectors are planning to check (among other things) that the word "SECRET" stamped on so many of our documents is exactly the correct size. And now we are being asked to re-invent ourselves.
Total Quality Management (TQM) is coming to the United States' last bastions of long-term, large-scale, mission-oriented research. It could be marvellous. But if it is abused, there will be performance measures for everything, each one giving ignorant bureaucrats the illusion that they can manage what they do not understand. As one wag remarked, "TQM is the revenge of the 'C' students."
The upshot of this is that employees who maximize the measures of their performance may often fare better than the ones who do good science. Those who comply with the leash may dominate those who try to figure out which way to go. That's fine for dogs, who know less than their masters, but sometimes scientists really do have something to say about how to do science. Though the TQM slogan, "the customer defines quality," is tautological in the short term, it could be disastrous in the long term if the customer (the DOE), through willful ignorance and blind distrust, gets out of touch with reality.
I heard an anecdote once about a Russian couple who, tired of city life, moved to a rural area just outside Moscow and bought a goat, which got poisoned soon afterward. Their neighbors had chickens, rabbits, and ducks, but no goats. Such an obvious sign of extraordinary wealth was not to be tolerated, because it made everyone else look bad. Besides, who did these transplanted city-dwellers think they were?
In the same vein, Russian entrepreneurs get their businesses raided and subjected to harrassment by the KGB. There was even a television news story recently about an independent farmer who, with twenty or so employees, out-produced a nearby collective farm with a staff of 2000. The collective farmers, who were on the town council, simply revoked his lease on the land and put him out of business.
The common theme in these examples is Russia's apparently favorite cultural sin -- envy. Rather than to create wealth, they just make sure that no one gets more than anybody else. It's no wonder that Communism took root so easily there. Now Russia is a poor country, and will remain so until its people pass beyond Envy — perhaps to our favorite cultural sin of greed.
On the other hand, we're more envious and less greedy than many of us would like to think. We have a business culture in which competetive strategy sometimes means screwing our opposition rather than doing a better job. Hence the occasional flurry of lawsuits, frivolous and otherwise, over restraint of trade. One can even imagine a company suing to prevent another from entering into a CRADA with a National Laboratory. The plaintiff isn't seeking to be included in the enterprise, just to keep the competition from participating.
As the saying goes, there ought to be a law against that sort of thing. You see, CRADAs are a poor way to sustain long term research, but they're a great way of capitalizing on it. As such, they should be protected.
And so should the scientists and engineers working on them. God help the National Laboratory scientist/engineer with enough entrepreneurial spirit to turn a CRADA or an invention into a business. Though we are trying to help our nation create jobs, we are not allowed to profit personally from our researches. This encourages the entrepreneurial researchers to take jobs elsewhere, which hampers the National Laboratories' efforts to help entrepreneurs.
So my current vision of a National Laboratory flanked by tens of small and large businesses founded by former Laboratory researchers, who still maintain close ties to the Laboratory, is currently illegal. As we re-invent our government, maybe we can fix that.
Gathering the various threads at this point, we see that the National Laboratories are being jerked around by short-term thinking, without clear long-term national policy to guide them, or a even legal foundation encouraging them to respond well to the short-term pressures. Add to that declining budgets, which, in the absence of a clear mission, will incite turf-battles among the managers in which skill at self-promotion and compliance to the leash-holders will determine success, rather than the scientific merit. What we have here is a recipe for organizational decline.
Now the end of the Cold War was a very big thing, but by itself, not big enough to do all this. There's something else going on. It's all over the back pages of Physics Today , where the job listings are. Or rather were. Judging by the scarcity of "permanent" positions advertised, now is the worst time in this century to be a physicist.
It's not because our culture is obtuse, buying into the idea promulgated by otherwise well-educated people, such as Vaclav Havel, that science is immoral. It's not even because the public has replaced the undeserved faith it once had in science with an equally undeserved skepticism. It's because the paradigms that have sustained twentieth century physics may be, in a strictly technological sense, played out.
Take classical electromagnetism, for example. Radio, radar, telephony, satellite communications, fiber optics, etc., have already been invented and well studied. The consequences of classical electromagnetic theory are well explored. Further advances in the technology require engineering rather than physics.
The same can be said for classical mechanics, despite the recent breakthrough in our understanding of complex systems represented by chaos theory. Basically, we know how to build machines and fly rockets. Case closed.
Special relativity and quantum mechanics gave us nuclear weapons and some interesting accelerator-based cancer treatments, but again further technological advances in those areas no longer require theorists.
Areas do lie waiting to be explored in quantum field theory, such as superconductivity, but that is more a matter for the alchemist-like experimental approach of materials science. And the real frontiers, Grand Unified Theories (GUTs), superstrings, and the like, lie far beyond our present technology to explore.
So that's it. Twentieth century physics, for good and ill, has delivered on most of its promises. Physics as we know it probably has no more wonderful or terrible technological implications, beyond what it's already given us. The remaining triumphs will be small for the next decade or two, like scanning-tunnelling and surface-force microscopy -- applications of physics that make it possible for other sciences to advance. And though the big breakthrough into the next paradigm may be only a few well-thought ideas away (some of which I may have sketched elsewhere), none of us can quite imagine it now.
Is it unreasonable to expect, then, that our corporate and national investments would shift from the physical to the biological sciences, where the paradigms are fresh, the promises great, and the technology ripe to explore them? Is it such a bad thing that people just want to live better, longer, and more cheaply? The shift in investment is hard on physical scientists like me, but ultimately I have to applaud it. I want to live better, too. I just want people to remember that many of the tools used by the life scientists were invented by physical scientists, and that we need to maintian some level of investment in the physical sciences if we want better tools to keep coming.
Another Physicist on Madison Avenue
So the lab is on a short leash, defense budgets are declining, the general economy is in a rut, and the economy for physicists is unlikely to recover in my professional lifetime. Retirement is beyond my planning horizon, and my literary agent tells me to keep my day job. Well, it's no use waiting around to see if the axe will actually fall. It's time to consider how to sell my time again, to whom, and for what purpose.
I could use my work in fluid turbulence as a lever to pry my way into the global climate research group, and remain halfway in the weapons program -- global climate modeling is being partly funded as a way to diversify weapons research into more peaceful "dual-use" activities.2 But that bubble could burst if the improved simulations throw cold water on the global warming hypothesis, or if the movement to consolidate government-funded research gathers too much steam. I could try to work my way further into the Inertial Confinement Fusion program, but its future looks uncertain to me, too.3 I could continue studying nuclear explosives in hope of becoming tenured as a person vital to our national defense. But for my generation such tenure may be reserved only for those who have tested their own nuclear explosive designs — in a severe budget crunch the more theoretical nuclear weapons physicists like me would have to be considered expendable.4 Moreover, that tenure will exist only as long as the American people want it to. Even though there are good arguments for maintaining a state-of-the-art thermonuclear weapons design capability at both Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories (some of which are presented elsewhere5), there are no guarantees.
So, maybe it's time to work the other side of the same street (or if the human propensity for war can be compared to a large carnivore, to switch teats of the tiger). Instead of contributing to nuclear deterrence, I think I'll try counter-proliferation. The Saddam Husseins of this world are doing their best to make it a growing business. Which for me means farewell again, theoretical physics. The weapons program still needs it, but it will be the first to go if funding gets much tighter. Hello again, systems engineering. I just hope the johns are as good to work for.6
Now my departure represents a small loss to the weapons program, because it has other physicists who could take up my work where I'm leaving it off. Unfortunately, that is less true for some others who have left the program ahead of me. While we work to make sure the former-Soviet nuclear weapons scientists have a future through such efforts as the International Science and Technology Center, we might think about making a future for our own. And for those of you who are unconcerned that the US nuclear weapons research program may be disintegrating, the words of Ghostbusters — if you wind up needing us after we've gone, "Who ya gonna call?"
- For more details on how to make a large organization comply to your commands, see William Koehler's, The Koehler Method of Dog Training, Macmillan, New York, 1962.
- The nuclear weapons design physics program is slowly diversifying into other fields in order to provide interesting and useful work for the people it needs to maintain sufficient competence in the various areas of nuclear design necessary to continue stewardship of the US nuclear weapons stockpile. As long as the US government considers that stewardship to be necessary, there will be no effort to "convert" the relatively small physics portions of the nuclear weapons program to civilian endeavors. The diversification of the physics parts of the program is proceeding slowly, because any new work must be synergistic with the program's core mission, and beause its management is as yet relatively inexperienced at the kind of business planning that such diversification requires. The much larger engineering portions of the program, which are not responsible for stockpile stewardship, are converting rapidly.
- For two reasons. (1) The ICF program is run on a short leash and is subject to cut-back or cancellation at any of several Key Decision Points as determined by a select panel of scientific rewiewers (the ICF Advisory Committee, or ICFAC), and/or by a budget-conscious government. I'm concerned that I could join the program only to end up like the scientists who worked until recently on the now-cancelled SSC. (2) I wonder if anyone has really worked through the engineering economics of ICF. Even if ICF can be made to work from a physics standpoint, ICF plants might have to be so big (and so costly) to be cost-effective that no electric power company could afford to build enough to take up the slack when any one plant is taken off line for maintenance. It may be more likely that ICF will be used to generate synthetic fuels rather than commercial electric power.
- I spent most of my "designer" days working on non-explosive parts of now-shelved concepts that were the opposite of the "neutron bomb" in that their use would have done much more harm to selected "assets" than to living things (an example of how a peaceful gesture — the current US "no new nuclear weapons" policy — might not necessarily make the world safer). Since then I have concentrated on theoretical work aimed at refining some aspects of our capability to predict thermonuclear explosive performance via computer modeling. And no, I can't build a bomb. If I could, I wouldn't be publishing this stuff.
- See "Obscenity and Peace" at this site.
- The title of this section refers to Tony Rothman's A Physicist on Madison Avenue, Princeton University Press, 1991.