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Bush Put Lab Future in Doubt

Tuesday December 16, 2003

One of the University of California’s best-heeled rivals for the contract to manage Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) has dropped out of the competition before it even began. 

“The Berkeley lab is so integrated with Cal Berkeley we don’t think it’s in our interest to compete that straight up,” said William Madia, Executive Vice President for Laboratory Operations at Battelle Corp, a nonprofit that already manages four Energy Department labs. 

Madia doubted that other companies and institutions would battle UC for the Berkeley Lab, but he said Battelle is one of several companies and institutions considering bids for UC’s other two federal labs—Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos—set for open competition when UC’s management contracts expire in 2005. 

Representatives for the University of Texas and Lockheed Martin—UC’s two other most publicized rivals—declined comment on their potential interest in the UC labs. 

Two weeks ago, with the stroke of a pen, President Bush ended UC’s more than half-century stranglehold over its three national laboratories. A provision tucked into a $27 billion energy bill calls for the Department of Energy to hold competitive bidding for lab contracts not contested for over 50 years.  

In addition to the UC labs, the bill affects three other labs—one operated by Iowa State University and the other two operated by the University of Chicago. 

The legislation comes amid repeated allegations of UC mismanagement at Los Alamos and Livermore—the nation’s premier nuclear weapons labs.  

UC faces tough decisions on whether to bid on all three laboratories, the operations of which UC spokesperson Chris Harrington estimated could cost more than $25 million—paid for primarily with lab management fees from the Energy Department.  

While university advisors question the wisdom of retaining Livermore—about 30 miles from UC headquarters—and far-flung Los Alamos—nestled on a high plateau in the New Mexico desert—they insist that LBNL, situated on UC Berkeley grounds and home to hundreds of UC Berkeley faculty and students, must remain with the school. 

“It’s a no-brainer,” said California Institute of Technology Provost Steven Koonin, who advises UC on its labs. “From an institutional sense it’s hard to imagine anyone else able to compete or doing an effective job managing it.” 

Lawrence Berkeley Lab was founded in 1931 and despite becoming a federal lab in 1942, it retains close ties to the university. Among the lab’s 1250 scientists and engineers, 241 are members of the UC Berkeley faculty. Additionally the lab employs 447 graduate students and 67 undergraduates, said Lab spokesperson Ron Kolb said. 

“A lot of what makes the lab work so well is the coordination with UC,” said Staff Scientist Robert Clear. “Bringing in [the University of] Texas could break that special relationship and that would hurt tremendously.” 

Although UC’s contract to run LBNL expires in January, the legislation allows the Department of Energy to delay bidding for up to two years, and UC advisors expect the competition for Berkeley Lab to follow those of Livermore and Los Alamos whose contracts expire in September, 2005. 

The UC Board of Regents will make the final call on whether it will bid for all three labs, Harrington said, based in part on the university’s financial resources and an electronic vote by the Academic Senate scheduled for May. 

Academic Senate Vice Chair George Blumenthal is conducting the poll and said the tough call will be what to do with Livermore and Los Alamos.  

“Everyone wants Berkeley to stay with UC, but there are many questions on the other two.” Some faculty members, he said, have expressed concern that with the mission of Livermore and, especially, Los Alamos shifting towards design and manufacture of next-generation nuclear weapons, it was time for the university to relinquish control. Berkeley lab does not perform weapons research. 

Blumenthal said he hoped that unlike previous polls taken in 1990 and 1996, which most professors skipped, the May vote will accurately reflect the will of the 13,000 member faculty. 

“The Board of Regents stakes its reputation on the prestige of its faculty,” he said. “If the faculty are opposed to bidding to retain the labs, the Regents should know about it and the Department of Energy should know about it.” 

Future UC management of Livermore and Los Alamos will likely include a corporate partner to handle financial management, Koonin said. 

Los Alamos has been plagued by scandal in recent years, which led to the dismissal of the lab director and 18 other officials, and just last week lab officials acknowledged that they had lost 10 disks with classified data. In October, LBNL suspended its chief financial officer after an audit uncovered faulty bookkeeping practices, but found no sign of fraud. 

The Department of Energy has awarded two of their last three lab management contracts to university-corporate partnerships, but Koonin said that since Berkeley lab is so different from the weapons labs, “it was not obvious that UC would need or want corporate partners.” 

Kolb didn’t expect major staff turnover in the event UC lost control of Berkeley lab, but feared that transferring retirement benefits could be tricky. 

Asked if the government might just move the whole operation out of Berkeley, Koonin replied that the lab is “so closely tied to the expertise of Berkeley faculty and has such a huge physical plant, I don’t see how the government could pick it up and move it elsewhere.”