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Giving US National Labs A Better Knack for Business

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EVER since the world's first nuclear test exploded in the New Mexico desert in 1945, United States national labs such as Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore, and Sandia have labored at the cutting edge of science.

While the design of sophisticated nuclear weapons has been their main focus, the US labs have also made strides in areas ranging from decoding genetics to the disposal of radioactive waste. Thirty-one scientists associated with US labs have won Nobel Prizes.

But with the end of the cold war, US labs have struggled to define their missions and maintain a sense of purpose. Now a major study by a federal commission is recommending consolidation of national labs, and major management change - but no lab closings.

The main theme of the commission report is that they need to be managed ``more strategically,'' says Secretary of Energy Hazel O'Leary.

Specifically, the commission, headed by former Motorola Corporation chairman Robert Galvin, suggested that the labs not flop about looking for some kind of new mission areas, but instead focus their areas on their core strengths: weapons work, energy and environment research, and basic science breakthroughs.

The panel also recommended against turning the whole Department of Energy-controlled lab complex over to the Department of Defense. It urged construction of the National Ignition Facility, a controversial nuclear-test project currently slated for Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, in northern California.

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