UC Berkeley News


Competition for national lab contracts concerns Berkeley scientists
Existing arrangement between labs and campus is a ‘win-win’ situation for researchers and the public

| 15 April 2004



Chemistry Professor Paul Alivisatos heads a research group at Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory focusing on nanoscience and nanotechnology. Many campus scientists enjoy the advantages such propinquity affords, including access to cutting-edge technologies.
Roy Kaltschmidt photo

For the first time since the U.S. national laboratory system was created more than 50 years ago, the contracts to operate the three national labs managed by the University of California are being put out for bids.

And for many UC Berkeley scientists, one of the most critical issues arising from the competition is the effect a change in the labs’ management could have on the hundreds of research collaborations, joint appointments, and teaching and learning opportunities that arise from the family ties between the campus and the labs.

“Current laboratory management values academic interactions,” said Per Peterson, chair of Berkeley’s Department of Nuclear Engineering and a long-time collaborator with researchers at Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos national laboratories. “It provides mechanisms and incentives that make it much easier for researchers from the labs to interact with the campuses, and especially with students.

“It’s hard to see that persisting, particularly under corporate management,” Peterson added. “And that would damage our ability to collaborate and perform research.”

From decoding DNA to designing fuel cells the size of postage stamps and describing the formation of distant stars, Berkeley researchers and students have made extensive use of their access to the supercomputers and biology, chemistry, engineering, and physics facilities at Lawrence Berkeley, Lawrence Livermore, and Los Alamos labs.

That access may be in question because of recent decisions by Congress and the U.S. Department of Energy to open the management and operating contracts of the three national labs to competition in the wake of widely publicized security and management problems at Los Alamos. The University of California is making the necessary preparations to bid for all three contracts, but the final call on whether to compete won’t be made by the UC Board of Regents until the terms of the competition are announced by DOE, possibly this summer. (The LBNL contract has been extended through next January to allow time for the competition; the Livermore and Los Alamos contracts are due to expire in November of next year.)

UC Berkeley’s interactions with LBNL, a renowned basic-research institution on the hill overlooking the campus, are the most intimate among the three labs and constitute a “life-and-death matter, with sky-high significance” for the University, according to Vice Chancellor for Research Beth Burnside. Several faculty members have warned in news-media interviews that management of LBNL by a contractor other than UC could create barriers to collaboration, damage faculty recruitment, and lead to the resignation of many top-ranked lab researchers who work closely with the university.

Because LBNL does unclassified research and is such an integral part of the Berkeley campus, “bidding to continue management of [LBNL is clearly in the best interest of UC and the lab,” according to the UC Academic Council’s Special Committee on the National Laboratories (ACSCONL). The committee has not taken a position on whether UC should continue to manage Livermore and Los Alamos, which conduct classified nuclear-weapon and other national-security-related research.

But the possible loss of ready access to the state-of-the-art scientific and technological facilities and expertise at Livermore and Los Alamos also concerns some Berkeley scientists. While they were founded to design nuclear weapons, the two labs have since evolved into multidisciplinary research facilities with programs in biology, medicine, chemistry, environmental science, and energy efficiency, About half of the research conducted at the two labs is unclassified.

“Working with Livermore, we’ve been able to do science we couldn’t have done independently,” said Berkeley Physics Professor Roger Falcone, whose work with ultrashort-pulse-length lasers is helping reveal the fundamental motion of atoms and molecules. “Livermore has lasers with much higher energy than we could possibly have put together at the university.”

Dozens of Berkeley graduate students and postdocs work at Livermore and Los Alamos. About 25 percent of the Livermore scientists with a doctorate, and 10 percent of the Ph.D.s at Los Alamos, are University of California graduates.

UC has developed a number of mechanisms to encourage scientific collaborations between the university’s campuses and labs for both faculty members and students. A number of these programs, including the Campus-Laboratory Exchange and Campus-Laboratory Collaborations programs, are funded by a portion of the $30-million annual fee UC receives from the Department of Energy for managing Livermore and Los Alamos.

UC’s management fees also support multicampus research units, such as the Institute for Geophysics and Planetary Physics (IGPP); research fellowships for faculty members and graduate students; and lab-initiated collaborative research projects funded by the UC-Directed Research and Development program.

Berkeley scientists participate in the work of a half-dozen UC-lab research institutes, such as the IGPP; the Joint Genome Institute in Walnut Creek, a DNA-sequencing collaboration of the three UC-managed labs; Livermore’s Center for Accelerator Mass Spectrometry; and a new Center for Biophotonics Science and Technology at UC Davis, founded by researchers from Livermore, Davis, Berkeley, and other universities to develop applications of state-of-the-art optical tools for biology and medicine.

Dennis Matthews, director of the Biophotonics Center and associate director of Livermore’s biomedical technology program, said the university-laboratory partnership was an important factor in securing a $40-million National Science Foundation grant to help establish the facility.

“Institutions that can combine academic and technical expertise in a multidisciplinary setting have a distinct advantage in competing for research dollars,” Matthews said, “and it’s much easier to put the pieces together when the campuses and the labs are members of the same family.”

Like UC, the University of Texas has authorized its management to prepare for a possible bid for the Los Alamos contract. Other organizations that have expressed an interest in bidding for one or more of the labs include Battelle Corp. and Lockheed Martin Corp., according to ACSCONL.

Peterson said a switch to a corporate contractor could diminish the emphasis on innovation and creative risk-taking encouraged by UC at the labs.

“Corporations don’t have the same kind of incentives that campuses do,” he said. “UC management creates an environment that encourages scholarship, science and innovation. The [lab] mechanisms that support innovations and independent activities exist largely because it’s something UC said was critical.”

“As important as the benefits to researchers and students of having these close collaborations,” added Beth Burnside, “is the benefit for all of us as members of the public. It’s very healthy for the country, because it provides a more interactive, first-class research environment for the labs, as well as valuable interactions for the faculty. It’s a win-win situation for both.”

A “Berkeley Forum” discussion of UC’s role in managing the labs, sponsored by the Berkeley Graduate Assembly, has been scheduled for April 21 at the International House Auditorium. (See ga.berkeley.edu/academics/ucdoeforum/.) The UC-lab relationship will also be discussed at the April 29 meeting of the Berkeley Division of the UC Academic Senate.

Next month, faculty members at all 10 UC campuses will weigh in on the issue through a statewide electronic survey (www.universityofcalifornia.edu/senate/news/source/source2_3.pdf) conducted by the UC Academic Council’s Special Committee on the National Laboratories (ACSCONL). The committee has prepared a series of white papers (www.universityofcalifornia.edu/senate/committees/council/acsconl/reports.html) to help educate faculty members on lab-management issues.

Links to requests for pre-proposals (RFPs) for UC’s Campus-Laboratory Exchange (CLE) and Campus-Laboratory Collaborations (CLC) programs can be found at labs.ucop.edu/index.html. The CLE program pays for one-year scientific collaborations involving faculty, laboratory staff, students, and postdocs at UC campuses and one or both of the national security laboratories. The CLC program funds three-year collaborations, providing seed money for long-term collaborative research projects. Pre-proposals are due April 30.