Sandia LabNews

Bombs, budgets, and biology: Sandia’s Robinson, Woodard share their thoughts on the state of the Labs as 2005 begins

It had been more than 18 months since the Lab News last sat down for our “annual” State of the Labs interview with Sandia President and Laboratory Director C. Paul Robinson and Executive VP and Deputy Director Joan Woodard. So there was a lot of ground to cover. In this interview they talk about a host of external and internal issues that affect Sandia and Sandians: budget matters, future possible funding squeezes, bunker-busting bombs, controlling proliferation of nuclear weapons, Iraq, the Labs’ outstanding technical work, its new thrusts in biology, thoughts on our mission and identity, fighting bureaucratic processes, the security management turn-around, safety problems, recruiting, the contractor workforce, the gate delays, and Sandia’s outstanding people. Ken Frazier and Bill Murphy of the Lab News staff conducted the interview.

Lab News: On the budget, what are your thoughts on the recently passed appropriations bill for fiscal year 2005, the Energy and Water Development Appropriations Bill, for our DOE funding? It seems to have been kind to Sandia and the national labs.

Joan: One very positive thing going on is the MESA [Microsystems and Engineering Sciences Applications complex] funding. I’m very pleased to see that come through. That project has been conducted so well by our team that we’ve been able to manage under the budget, not eating into the contingency. So with the new appropriations that came through for this year, we are very, very close to being able to complete MESA successfully.

Paul: The nuclear weapons program had to really grow, and that’s exactly what happened with all the other funding. Now, there is a suspicion that we’re at a high water mark in the nuclear weapons program. Few believe that it could increase again, certainly not significantly. Particularly since most of the strategies being talked about nationally are to have less emphasis on nuclear weapons. I’m pleased to say nobody’s talking about them going away and not having major continuing roles, but some are trying to take them back from the center stage of our defense posture.

LN: What about the elimination of the bunker-busting bomb program that you advocated, Paul? That’s apparently a clear decision.

Paul: I feel it’s sort of unfortunate, because when we really did get to have some discussions with Chairman [David] Hobson [R-Ohio], who chairs the House Appropriations side, he got a totally different understanding than when they had written that bill. We had been hoping maybe he would change. I want to make one point about the campaign. Nuclear weapons got mentioned once in the campaign, in the debate, by John Kerry. I hope people paid attention to what he keyed on. It was a view I don’t agree with, but I find it to be certainly the charge from the left. It is that proliferation is the biggest problem and that the worst thing we could do to encourage proliferation would be if we built new nuclear weapons and therefore one thing we absolutely must not do if I’m elected president, John Kerry said, is build a new nuclear weapon like this bunker buster.

LN: How, briefly, do you counter that argument?

Paul: Very easily. I don’t think it’s the weapons that threaten, it’s the deterrence balance. And we have had the ability to hold at risk key targets that others value more than they value an act of aggression that they would otherwise carry out. That’s what we want to prevent. The knowledge that we could hold at risk what they value, whether it’s on the surface, underground, anywhere, is sobering. And that is what deters. Lately they’ve been realizing there are other ways to go about that. Instead of making agreements or deciding not to be hostile aggressors, they could just hide this stuff away where we can’t reach it. And there are several ways to do that. They could hide it under large structures with large roofs so you can’t precision target it or they can place it deeply underground. And we’ve been saying we can’t let them move out from under what was a stable deterrent for many decades. So we have to have the ability to hold at risk wherever things move to, and we think we have the technology to do that. That’s what the system is all about. And it’s not a fundamental change, it’s not an aggressive weapon on our part, it’s a deterrent weapon just the same as it always was. It’s to plug up other actions they’ve taken to escape from our deterrents.

LN: We’ve had fairly generous funding for three or four years in a row, maybe more. We know there’s no guarantee that will continue. What kind of contingency planning are you doing? What do we expect farther down the line in funding, and what can we do about it?

Paul: Well, we could talk about the strategic planning and the theme of our fall leadership conference, which was “Keeping the Glass Full.” We weren’t referring to money, we were talking about important programs — but they come one with the other.

Joan: Our best budget for new revenue in this fiscal year is to be comparable to last year. We did have an increase in the carryover last year so we’re expecting our costing will allow us to maintain a stable lab. So basically from ’04 to ’05, we expect things to be flat across the board. However, the years beyond ’05 are where we’re really spending time trying to figure out the driving factors. Clearly there’s going to be pressure as a result of the federal budget deficit. We’re hearing that already from NNSA, which is expecting some significant cuts in the budget request.

The budget deficit challenge may disproportionately hit some agencies over others because both DoD and probably Homeland Security are to some extent going to be off the table for reductions. Other areas may be taking a bigger hit, and this means some of our programs in DOE and other agencies may see even greater pressure.

In addition to our discussions at the Fall Leadership Forum, we’re gearing up over the next months to spend some time in formal and informal strategic planning. We just spent a day and a half in Mission Council going through each of the mission areas and our expectations over the next five years. We’ve created some bounding assumptions of where the mission area mix may change over time and also what the overall impact may be on the magnitude of the work.

We expect to continue to see great needs in homeland security, which is a continuing opportunity for us to bring some real contributions to bear. At DoD, with a war going on it takes large budgets, so there will be pressure on other than the war-making part of the department. However, there are some who believe that as a result of the “beating” our military equipment is taking in the war, acquisition will have to increase, and R&D funding often increases in periods of increasing acquisition.

This may again provide opportunities for us to serve. In the nuclear weapons program there’s going to be some pressure, and I think we’ve yet to really see how that’s going to bear out. There’s an important study requested by the House that [NNSA Administrator] Linton Brooks is trying to organize. It’s to take a look at the whole complex and examine appropriate transformation within the nuclear weapons complex over the next years.

Paul: And I cannot believe that the major themes will not be “smaller” and “less expensive.” So reducing the footprint as well as the cost have to be the stresses here.

’06 budget to be huge turning point

LN: Is there anything in that line of thinking that would lead you to think that we might be moving toward an Atomic Weapons Establishment-type complex?

Paul: Some have suggested that that was behind this study but others have said, no, they don’t really understand what the Brits are doing. I believe they are just natural pressures. Certainly when Representative Hobson was here he remarked how what he found here was very different from what he had expected and for that reason he was very happy that he came and spent the time. And in comments he made to others and to us he said he had expected to find the same kind of things he saw at Savannah River and at Oak Ridge Y12 Plant and at Pantex — which in his belief looked like factories of 40 or 50 years ago and not modern operating companies. And in that sense he felt very good, since he’s the one who asked for the study and he wants to take down old-looking and old-style factories and come up with some more modern ones.

I have one addition that I think is very important that suggests that the FY06 budget is going to be the huge turning point. It arises because of the way changes are going on in the Administration. There are changes throughout the government and cabinet positions and senior officials everywhere. It’s becoming less and less the case that people who serve the president stay as long as the president; most serve one term or half a term, as was familiar for awhile. But the people who are staying are the OMB [Office of Management and Budget] folks. Now, one of the things that does not catch a lot of the spotlight are the constant budget battles between the agencies and OMB that lead up to the president’s budget finally getting developed. We’ve had to depend upon the Secretary, the Deputy Secretary, and Linton Brooks to argue and carry the torch back in fights against OMB positions, which are never to increase things but always to ask what could be cut back. Except now there will be green and new people; in fact, they probably won’t be well attuned to knowing what game is being played yet, but the same OMB people who were there the first four years will still be there. And so I think the balance has shifted considerably toward the side of OMB and their tendencies to reduce rather than add, and that it’s the ’06 president’s budget we all had better watch out for.

LN: When are we going to see that?

Paul: January. And then it gets argued with the Congress for the next number of months while there’s a continuing resolution. But I don’t think they could continue on. You do recall during the campaign there was a fight within the Republican party with members of the House saying we’ve let foreign trade go too far out of balance, the national debt has risen again. We’ve got to come to grips with that and so we won’t approve just an open checkbook. And so I believe all of those pressures are converging so that in the ’06 budget you really better sharpen your pencils and put on the green eyeshades.

Labs’ technical innovations superb

LN: What’s going well for Sandia right now, and what, if anything, is not going well? What’s the overall status of things here?

Joan: I think one thing that’s going well are the enormous contributions, the technical contributions, for our customers. Our customer satisfaction survey completed during the summer showed a statistically significant increase in customer satisfaction and sense of value we provide to them. To me that was a great, great vindication. Testimonials continue to come in; letters to Paul’s office highlight the great contributions we are making.

Paul: I’m convinced we’ve never been better in the technical innovations we’ve done and the development of applications nearly immediately of any of these breakthroughs we’ve seen.

We had a talk at fall leadership about a detector to measure directly gene changes. It is sort of revolutionary to that field. As the environment that living cells are in changes or disease becomes present or other species a cell must interact with come into being, the cell begins to change its genes and turn on or turn off certain ones. That’s been documented very well in a few things. That’s the real life force that goes on. Well, our people said we could observe this a lot better than those doing it with filters and dyes looking at fluorescence, and so they split the spectrum up into 512 bins and have found a precision that’s extraordinary. And what they found is a revolution. For one thing, they found that most of the early work that’s been done in the field is not as useful because they kept finding this funny signal that was coming from all of the gene arrays, micro arrays. It was coming from the solvent these things were in. The company making the solvent was unaware of that as were all the researchers because they didn’t have the precision to know that this was going on. So suddenly we came on to the scene as people about whom some said, “What do you know in genetics and biology?” to “Is that what you’ve been working on? We all need that technology.” So a lot of people have been excited. That’s one of our big contributions to biology.

We have a cohesive mission and identity

Paul: Let me say one of the things that I think is going well for us. It’s the message we communicated to David Hobson, and that is we based our current organization and the way we do business on a fairly simple model that nuclear weapons must remain the priority mission of the laboratory — and that the other work we will do will be work that draws on the nuclear weapon capabilities, enriches them so that they’re more useful in the nuclear weapons program at later times. That makes a cohesive package to know who we are and what work and programs we want to do. It sets our other mission areas — the nonproliferation and assessments work, the military support technologies, the energy and critical infrastructures work, and the homeland security work. The one area that for awhile appeared would be excluded by that model was work in biology. But with taking on the major threat role in homeland security, biological and chemical threats, biology now fits fairly well. Of course we’ve applied our microelectronics capabilities, and the lab on a chip is a big turning point in all of that. And so we think that fits together to say who we are, where we’re going, and why we’re important to the country. It’s a message we believe. But certainly Congressman Hobson saw that, advocates it. He says he was very pleased to see the picture we put together. So I would say the basic picture of how we’ve structured ourselves to do business is working.

Now, at fall leadership, Bruce Harreld [of IBM] came and talked about cultural transformation and change. He showed us a list of great companies over history and said, what do you know about this list? You stare at their eminent names. A lot of them went out of business and certainly they all sort of reached the end of their rope or nearly did and had a major turnaround, including his own company. And so he said he couldn’t articulate what needs changed at Sandia but said, “Every one of you here working together knows that it wouldn’t take you long to decide because of the very success you’ve had.” And he said, “I did my homework on Sandia. You guys have really been successful, but the very success you’ve had has sowed the seeds for your problems of the future.” He meant when we think we don’t need to change, we won’t question any more, saying, “Oh that’s fixed, we won’t change that.” So I don’t want to be so over-confident in our picture to you about how nuclear weapons and the other things stack up so neatly that I imply that that’s the way it’s always going to be, because we certainly can’t predict that future. We have to be constantly questioning both how we do business and what things need to change, because the outside world we interact with has changed.

LN: That maybe answers the other part of the question. What might not be going so well or what do we need to appeal to employees or others to help with?

Joan: I believe over the next years we’re going to feel pressures on the budget, and pressure across government to be much more cost effective. We need everybody to step up to the plate and really work on efficiencies. And that comes not only in everybody’s individual job and how they can be more efficient and careful about their expenditures and expenses but also it really reinforces the importance of the work we’re doing in putting in place more effective, cohesive management systems. We’re building on the work going on in the Integrated Enabling Services SMU [Strategic Management Unit] and the Nuclear Weapons SMU. We’re developing an Integrated Laboratory Management System. The whole idea is that by integration we actually can leverage to reduce costs and be more efficient across the board.

Open season on bureaucratic processes

Paul: I think that’s where we have contributed not only to our own fiscal status but to the whole complex — some of the ideas we’ve been developing of late should be used much more widely, not just in our manufacturing programs but in everything we do here: Lean Thinking. There’re so many steps and processes you don’t need to do. Once you have methodologies to recognize those, not only are you cheaper but you are so much better than you were with these not-value-added steps in there. This is a time to start harvesting some of the things we’ve already proven can work.

Joan: An example of that is the recent work on Lock Out/Tag Out [electrical safety]. A number of audits have highlighted problems in our LO/TO program. We just don’t effectively perform or really integrate that habit into our day-to-day operations in so many areas where we have high-powered equipment. A team applied the Lean/Six Sigma approach to mapping out processes that are defined in our ES&H manual for LO/TO. The purpose was to clarify and simplify. Previously, the program was so complicated that some users, I am told, went to the law for direction rather than to our manual.
Significant clarification and simplification was achieved. Great compliments to that team, and I hope that that will lead to similar work in other areas.

Paul: And it’s always open season on bureaucratic processes. I think anytime you find that we’re doing things bureaucratically and quit thinking how to do it better, there’re probably tremendous gains that can be made. And the other thing about Lean/Six Sigma, which was invented by American professors but then realized by the Japanese, is that when they finally applied it to their business processes, the first time they figured about 4 percent of the things they were doing added real value and 96 percent was wasted effort and motion. Why they were doing these no one could answer. Well, those that have improved the most, the very best in the world — the model company is Toyota/Lexus — they think they’re up to about 25 percent of value-added work. So this is going to go on for awhile, eliminating the waste.

Big turn-around in security management

LN: Are the security management problems that afflicted us in the last 18 months mostly resolved to your satisfaction?

Joan: I think we can report that we have made some significant strides in improvement and, of course, we have some areas of continued work. The place where we made noticeable improvement is the overall Protective Force. The performance of the people is really setting the bar for many others. I think there’s been a wonderful, dramatic turnaround that we should all feel very, very proud of, and congratulate the team. The areas where we have our challenge are where security hits the line. That is where we have individual responsibilities for protection of classified matter, classified materials, documents, etc. in the line. Other areas are in our self-assessment. That’s not just each manager looking at his or her own operations but data that Paul and I could look at corporately to say, yes, we’re on track, we know that we are in fact implementing our policies and they are effective.

Paul: I would worry the most if anyone should draw the conclusion that good security is a destination as opposed to journey. It is a journey, and things will change, and in particular we know lots of foreign intelligence services target us. They aren’t going to stop because of the things we’ve done. They will now be looking for other routes. And one of those that we’ve targeted and we’re all likely to lose to sleep over is that we have gotten better at putting our classified information on classified information networks. Making sure we don’t have vulnerabilities in those networks is going to be a huge undertaking and one that’s going to require a lot of vigilance and day-to-day attention. Once again you will never say, “Boy, we’re good enough.”

Need more work on safety

Joan: Personally, my worry level has come down a bit with regard to security. This has allowed us to see some of the problems we have in other areas. One area that I think is extremely important to emphasize is safety, our safety culture, and the overall ES&H operations in the Laboratory. And again where policy is implemented by the line is where we have significant problems and need improvement. Examples are the accident rate. We look at our accident rate and say that’s not so bad. But unfortunately if you compare ourselves with some of the best out there within the DOE system, we find that there are others better than we are. And if you go out in the industry to companies that have really taken on safety as a significant value, we have a long way to go.

It gets back to simple things like mindfulness, paying attention, planning work, following your procedures. I recently had an opportunity to talk with a group of folks involved with one of the near misses in electrical safety that occurred in November. It was an example where an experiment was modified but in planning the modification not enough thought went into the safety aspects. That was further compounded by the employee involved in doing the actual experiment not strictly following procedures. The combination of the two led to a shock situation for an individual — fortunately not serious, but truly a near-miss. So plan the work, be mindful. There is no place where we can short-cut safety. That’s true whether it is paying attention in the winter when you’re walking to the parking lot where there may be ice or whether you’re dealing with a high-voltage electrical experiment.

Recruiting extremely important

LN: We had a big push for recruiting for several years and now it seems to have calmed some. What is our situation in recruiting?

Joan: Two or three years ago we put a lot of attention and focus on very high quality recruiting — improving our recruiting, candidate review, and selection and increasing the magnitude of our recruiting. For the past few years we actually exceeded our recruiting goals for each year of about 500 people. Because we saw good candidates and our budget was going up, mostly in nuclear weapons, we actually recruited above our plan, hiring about 600 a year. This last year, anticipating some budget uncertainties, we hired to our plan of 500. This year we believe we will need to keep the Lab size steady at 8,500, based on analysis of this year’s budget and a multiyear perspective. This means a 350-400 person hiring program, which is a very good hiring program, and we will be bringing in outstanding candidates.

Let me add a special thanks to the people who this past summer hosted students and worked with students. Because we see the nation facing a terrible problem with math and science education — getting the best and brightest to go into the physical sciences and engineering in college and graduate school — we have a very strong summer-hire program. We had 1,400 students here last summer, and the impact we had with those students, encouraging them in their careers, is something that people should be very, very proud of.

Paul: And hopefully it’s preparing a number of students to wish they could work at Sandia later in their careers. We had already mentioned the [budget] carryover. Carryover in DOE is fairly small by the way the rules work, but in Work for Others agencies, defense, intelligence, and homeland security, we can carry those over. I think it’s been a part of our diversifying as “a true national lab” that has given us carryover, which allows us to do a number of things not as one-year slices anymore. We can look at multiyear planning, and that’s going to continue to be a big help to stabilize things in the future.

Workforce larger than just employees

LN: What about Limited Term Employees? We have a number of them, they develop good skills here and become experienced members of the staff, but we can’t guarantee they can stay. Can we do a better job of bringing them on as permanent employees?

Joan: First, let me emphasize that limited term positions, just as the name implies, are positions for which we are uncertain about the long-term Lab need. Just as we do with the 1,400 students we had last summer, we’re always looking for the best that we might consider for evaluation as regular employee candidates. There are many places in the Labs where some combination of staff augmentation, contract employees, limited term employees, postdocs, and regular staff is very appropriate. This is especially true where we have programs with uncertain future funding or we may need a unique skill for a short period of time. Those approaches to managing our workforce are very appropriate. We always must be clear that these temporary positions do not guarantee future employment.

Paul: In the same way you recall this was a thing thrust onto my plate the first month or two I got this job — the question of hiring staff augmentation people away from our own contractors. That seemed to be the predominant model. Well, we did fix that — I think in a way that now allows contracts to fluctuate up and down according to our real needs and not having the same obligation as if everyone were employed.

LN: Contractors are, in a way, a hidden workforce. How many on-site contractors do we have?

Joan: As I mentioned, contractors are an important part of the base to accomplish our mission. We have staff augmentation contractors and many individuals from performance-based contracts — where we contract for a product or service rather than for an individual person.

Paul: If you count us, I think we’re around 8,500 people in round numbers on roll. But you can think of us as 10,000 as an overall Lab workforce, with the combination of limited term and augmented labor of various types. But it’s interesting — those who have clearances active in our system total 13,000. That’s because we have changed our rules about consultants. With the Sandia pension plan it used to be that when you retired you had to banish yourself away from here. We were the only lab that did that. So among the changes we made and got approved in the previous big change in pension benefits was that change. We have to be careful about how many hours people can work, but it does allow people to still have an association with the Laboratory. And I can tell you when 9/11 happened the first phone calls were from retirees all over whose brains had not stopped working, and they were thinking: Have you guys looked at doing this? I can help with that. With the change, we were able to allow more people to keep a continuing relationship after they retiree.

The gate delays

LN: The extraordinary delays at the gates: They are affecting every single employee, so I know that’s on everybody’s minds. Do you know why it’s taking longer for each car to go through the gates and is there anything you can tell Sandians about that? Will it change? [Also, see Lab News front-page article, Dec. 10.]

Joan: First of all, the base security is an important part of Sandia National Laboratories security. So I would first ask everybody to be understanding, to be patient, and to be respectful as they go through the gate. The base is working very hard to figure out ways to improve flow. Through their own self-assessment — looking at the procedures at the gates for allowing access — they found some needs for improvements. There have been some aspects of examining credentials that have been strengthened. Recently the Sandia Daily News listed what people can do to have necessary information available when they approach the gate. Not being prepared slows down everyone. If everyone had their appropriate credentials out and with the new process of putting two and three protective force personnel in a row so that you can get two and three cars through at a time, traffic can move very well.

Paul: And they have been having problems as we’ve both grown and so there’re more people coming through the gates. They have had more people coming on base because they’ve taken on some additional missions that were not here before. So the numbers are up, but as you’ve seen, across the military reenlistments are down, and that’s true in security. As the needs have arisen in the theatres of warfare they’ve moved people, and so the very gate guards that we were having from the military are now in Afghanistan and Iraq. All kinds of brand new folks are there, being trained by the others. The Air Force is looking at a system that would allow them to have more contract security guards in some functions, and among the functions they’re looking at are gate guards. We may be on the way, but we haven’t solved the problem yet.

LN: Is an act of Congress required?

Joan: No, this was reported in the press as an initiative the Air Force has taken, Air Force–wide. How it will affect Kirtland we don’t know yet. Meanwhile we need to continue publicizing that if people are prepared when they get to a gate then the flow can occur a lot better than it is now.

The wars in Iraq

LN: When we last talked to you in this setting it was just before the Iraq war began and that was much on your minds. Paul, you said then that you wondered if we would find nuclear, chemical or biological weapons in Iraq and you also said “God forbid” if they might use them against us in one way or another. What are your brief thoughts about what’s happened in Iraq since then, both good and bad? And how the war’s gone? And where we are with that?

Paul: Let me give you a simplified capsule first. We’re now engaged in the second war since we went into Iraq. The first war was a military campaign: We sent an invasion force to take power to overthrow the previous government; it was extremely successful. In fact, successful beyond anyone’s guess as to how quickly all that could happen and the low number of casualties, just unbelievable, again in a place as big as Texas. The second war is a war of insurgencies, including reinforcement by a lot of places. Neighboring countries all over the Middle East have sent people in, and these are the insurgents we’re battling. It’s a totally different war, needing totally different tactics and with a different enemy than we faced the first time.

I’m an optimist, as you know, and I still believe that it’s best for us to have the encounter with terrorists on their soil and not have them infiltrating into the US. And if they would like, to take their shots at us there, thanks to the brave men and women who go over and defend us there. The numbers of the recent Fallujah attack are just incredible in terms of the casualties of the insurgents, versus our casualties, including those captured as well as those killed or injured. In Fallujah we found some chemical shops, so now I replaced my fear about using chemicals in a mass effect on a battlefield to using chemicals in a terrorist attack. I still worry that our folks will see that. And there are still grounds to worry, as you know, that that’s the thing we need to fear the most at home. Indeed, both the new Homeland Security Department and the Homeland Defense Northern Command are most worried about a bioterrorism attack here in the US as their number one priority. I worry just the same about that, biochemicals as well as industrial chemicals that could be used. So I’m still worried, but the worries have certainly morphed during the period.

Bottling the nuclear genie

LN: Paul, you published a really interesting commentary in the Nov. 25 Nature giving your thinking about containing nuclear proliferation in the future and world peace. You proposed a global network of NATO-style inter-country alliances (Lab News, Dec. 10). What stimulated your thinking along those lines?

Paul: I did an interview with the editorial board of Nature and talked about some of my thoughts about the future of nuclear weapons and found myself drawn into a debate with them. Is the world going to change? Will it ever change or will it just keep going this way? And I said, now you’ve asked the really hard question. I have believed for a long time we should be spending a lot more time addressing that very question. I still believe it is a miracle beyond any expectation a human could have that we took weapons up in power by a factor of a million and used two of them in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with the huge effect that had, and we have never used one of those weapons since. But more amazing we then took the designs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and took them up another one million in effective yield-to-weight in thermonuclear weapons. And we’ve never seen one of those used. What will change that? Are we doing anything fundamentally that could prevent one someday being used? I said we’re not and we should be giving our top attention to that. They asked what I would do. I said, “That’s easy.”

The US put forward the Baruch plan [after World War II], when we were the only power in control of the first generation of nuclear weapons. We said, “Let’s draw a line now and have international control of these weapons.” Not enough people were shocked by the deaths of World War II, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to do that. They were all in an arms race already, so that proposal died. Well, what has happened since then? Not only did that proposal die but any enthusiasm you might have had that an effective form of world government is just around the corner has sure gotten dashed to pieces by the poor performance of UN agencies. The United Nations as a structure is in the doldrums, to say the least. And so the question put to me at that point was, “Does that mean you can’t do anything?” I said, “No, actually I’ve been toying with an idea.” So I told them the idea I’ve suggested in a bunch of talks in recent times: I believe the North Atlantic Treaty has done more to prevent proliferation than has the Nonproliferation Treaty. And that collective security that arose there has done an awful lot to make people realize, with some hope, that nations can cooperate and agree to forego certain choices in order to have real security. And that in fact not only did all the original NATO nations do that, but almost all of the former Warsaw Pact now have changed sides and joined NATO under part of that collective security including collective nuclear weapons. They now don’t need to have their own nuclear weapons, and they won’t proliferate.

So I said, “Why are we not working this problem in parts?” Let’s divide up the world into plates if you will, not geo-technical or tectonic plates but zones, and start building alliances. Now, one of the keys of my thinking is the US would help put those together. People of good will everywhere we’d invite to join. I wrote in the article how I would start in Southeast Asia because almost all the folks could have weapons in this huge area. Also, A.Q. Khan’s [then head of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program] proliferation network and his use of Malaysia to build and sell centrifuges are real worries. That should be a wake-up call for us. So, it is there I would form the next collective security pact and then move into northern Asia and then the Middle East. South America I think will be easy. And finally Africa, which is the hardest. None of this is going to be really easy. But it sure looks to me like a feasible way of gaining control over these super weapons, and gaining control over proliferation so that nobody needs to die from nuclear weapons again. And the bigger reward than people not dying is real collective security so the world can get on to more important things.

LN: Have the problems with nuclear weapons in North Korea and Iran and Russian President Putin’s recent statement about nuclear missiles intensified your concerns in these areas?

Paul: I have known about all of those for a long time. We all knew these things for a number of years before they hit the open literature. There are real worries about whether someone is going to get one or more of these weapons and use them. What can stop it and what are we doing to stop it? Not very much. After my Nature article appeared someone said Robinson’s trying to walk out of the obligations of the Nonproliferation Treaty. Did I ever say that? Do I believe that? Not at all. But the Nonproliferation Treaty is being quite ineffective. Let’s go out and do something that has a chance at making a difference.

Multiple masters, one mission: security

LN: Back to Sandia. We used to have one fundamental mission and one main master. Now we have many different funding sources, agencies, and entities to report to or get money from. The former situation created a lot of unity. Is there danger now of fragmentation and being a job-shop? You addressed this earlier with your comment about nuclear weapons being still the fundamental mission and everything else drawing around that mission, providing a sense of unity.

Paul: Joan and I really have had great discussions on this. One of the key questions on the table was, what happens if this is the high-water mark for the nuclear weapon budget? If these other national security missions that we’ve taken on continue to grow, will this change the basic character of the Laboratory? Can you still have nuclear weapons as the prime program if its proportion of the funding goes below 50 percent? It’s at 56 percent to 58 percent now. What if it goes below 50 percent? There used to be an idea that if nuclear weapons ever became 50 percent you’d have to stop doing some other Work for Others so that would never be true. I don’t believe that. But what happens if nuclear weapons continued to erode in priority, down to 40 percent, 30 percent, . . . 20 percent? If nuclear weapons were only 20 percent that could still provide most of the infrastructure support. Is that a healthy lab and could we really guarantee weapons were the highest priority? We discussed it with our Board of Directors, the Mission Committee, and the Board, and were we taken up short! Larry Welch, who chairs the Mission Committee, said, “I was Commander-in-Chief of SAC [Strategic Air Command] and I was Air Force Chief of Staff and I remember those years well. Nuclear weapons were 9 percent of the total budget, but if you thought for a minute it didn’t dominate all our thinking and get the highest priorities, you were really wrong.” There is a different viewpoint. It is security that we’re about, and maybe that’s what gives me so much passion around things like the Nature article and that debate. It’s security that we’re trying to develop, and that’s our mission. I believe we can become “a true national lab” in this same model regardless of how the relative funding sources change. By the way, I don’t find it at all handicapping to have more than one customer. It makes life busier, but it gives us a lot more flexibility.

The integrating force: Our capabilities

Joan: You’re right to point out that for so long in our history nuclear weapons have provided that integrating force within the Laboratory. And so what about the kind of scenarios that Paul described? We’ve been debating that. What provides that integrating source? I contend it is the capabilities of the Laboratory. The nuclear weapons program has provided to the nation a wonderful range of capabilities. In fact, we now have very good processes by which we look at the health of those capabilities, 20-some capabilities across the nuclear weapons program. We’re taking that same approach of active capability management and we’re bringing that now to the Labs overall, some 35 capabilities. We’re now looking at Lab-wide capabilities, and we have a tool by which we can actively do capabilities management. It’s the capabilities that really provide the integrative force of the Laboratory. We serve national security but not in all areas. There are some areas where we are not that good and some areas where we have no capability. But where we serve is where we have strong capabilities, and nurturing those must be one of the most important things that the leadership of the Lab does over the next years.

LN: Let us follow up on this. Are we recruiting new employees to come to work in a nuclear weapons lab or in a capabilities base that gives them lots of opportunities?

Joan: I talk to the new-hire orientation class every time. What I tell them is that we’re a national security lab and you have an opportunity here to make contributions over a career in many different areas if you like. You could have multiple careers or multiple mini-careers at a place like Sandia, all serving national security. The bottom line is we’re a national security laboratory and you’ll feel the satisfaction of serving this nation and protecting this nation.

Sandia’s great self-organizing people

LN: Is there anything we haven’t talked about that you would like to make a point about?

Joan: I want to tell everyone how incredibly proud I am of the people of this Lab. Preparing for the Mission Council retreat I had each of the mission areas compile just a few pages on programmatic, technical highlights of this last year. Just reading through that list has been rewarding. Not to cut any of them short, but the nuclear weapons program and the very demanding schedule of tests and hardware and analysis to understand the design and really make sure we have a certified, qualified design, is going very, very well. There’re examples across all the areas that are very exciting.

Paul: I’ve been using the analogy of a living organism now that we’re into bio. The Lab has got to be a living organism and be prepared to change. We’ve got to look at our processes, and bringing in new recruits is a key part of that. The state of the Lab I think is very healthy in that sense. I see that when I look at the list of innovations that have been done and that really make a difference. We get a lot of complimentary letters from folks, a lot of prizes, awards, we get National Academy memberships and people appointed Fellows of all the scientific societies.

We are becoming a better Laboratory in recent times. The budget support is just one aspect of it. Pointing to the things that really make a difference to the country is the biggest reason to have this organism exist.

We are mastering as never before the benefits of pursuing science and applications at the same time. We’re doing that and doing far better than I think we ever have before, and it’s amazing how it continues to build. We can put together teams more quickly to solve an important problem that comes up than we ever could before. As you study biology you find that self-organizing networks are the biological way. More than us managing from “top-down command-control managing” this place has reached the point of being self-organizing. We had some major highly classified projects that have come up, and I find people here have gotten the right resources, put together a team. When finally I get a report, I look and say, my God, they are using some of the best people at Sandia. How did they know to find them? Well, it’s magic. That magic is something I believe all of Sandia knows well how to do.
We have great people, and they’re finding how to find each other and use each other in
performing our programs. That makes me very optimistic about the future.