By John Fleck
U.S. nuclear-weapons labs are losing staff and having a hard time attracting the kind of top scientific and engineering talent needed to maintain the nation's nuclear arsenal, a panel of senior lab officials told members of Congress on Thursday.
Morale has suffered because of allegations of lax security at the labs, said Los Alamos National Laboratory Director John Browne.
"They are very loyal to this country," Browne said of lab workers, "and they thought that their loyalty was being questioned."
The problems also run deeper, lab officials said, with a decline in the kind of cutting-edge basic research needed to attract top talent and competition from private industry able to woo smart young scientists and engineers with signing bonuses and stock options.
Their comments came during a House Commerce Committee forum Thursday in Albuquerque attended by Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, and Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M.
Sandia National Laboratories has hired fewer than 100 new workers this year as a result of budget problems, compared with the more than 400 hired last year, said Sandia Vice President Joan Woodard.
When Sandia recruiters visit college campuses trying to recruit top graduates, they are up against private companies offering lucrative financial packages, Woodard said. "Industry folks are there offering stock options," she said.
Sandia, meanwhile, has to recruit in an environment of spy scandals, mandatory polygraphs for some workers, travel restrictions and what Woodard called "DOE micromanagement and congressional scrutiny."
All of that has had "a significant impact on morale," Woodard said.
Los Alamos Deputy Director Bill Press identified an additional issue that is hurting the labs a decline in the sort of basic research needed to attract top talent.
"This is the hook," he said. "It's the entry to get people into the system."
It also provides the technological "seed corn" for future research at the laboratory, Press said.
Just 7.4 percent of the Los Alamos budget is devoted to basic research, Press said, far lower than is common in industry or other major federal research programs.
"This is highly inadequate," Press said.
Much attention has focused on a congressional cut in a key program that used to allow the labs to divert 6 percent of their overall budgets to lab-designated basic research.
Congress cut that this year to 4 percent, and a battle is under way on Capitol Hill over whether the full 6 percent should be reinstated.
But focusing on that one program ignores a larger problem in basic research funding, Press said.
"It's like talking about burning your finger on a match in the kitchen while there's a big fire in the living room," Press said.