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Anastasio calls for national science vision

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By Roger Snodgrass

The director of Los Alamos National Laboratory took a message of consensus to Washington, D.C., this morning in a talk that was webcast live by the Woodrow Wilson International Center.Michael Anastasio asked the audience of policy makers and national reporters to help rebuild the partnership between government and the science and technical community that served the nation in the last half of the 20th century, but has lost cohesion in recent years.The lab director called the combination of emerging security challenges along with legacy issues of the cold war “daunting,” but he said national policy has been driven by “a focus to the near term, with discreet and narrowly defined deliverables.”He called for an inspired vision, a plan of action and sustained investment in the human and physical infrastucture that might be needed, especially in the transitional area between pure research and applied science.In answer to a question about the future of the Reliable Replacement Warhead, he said Washington’s disposition of the controversial new nuclear warhead design that has been advanced by the administration was an illustration of the point he was trying to make.The appropriation process, he noted, had withdrawn funding from the project.“Of course, we will not work on that because it’s been zeroed out,” he said. “Where it will go in the future, I don’t know.”It was an example of what happens, “when we don’t have a vision,” he said. “Unfortunately, a decision by an appropriation committee is setting policy.”He pointed out that science and technology is capable of providing additional options that policy-makers might not have considered, offering the example of stockpile stewardship that he said had fashioned a kind of arrangement between the end of nuclear testing in the early 1990s and the maintenance of a nuclear deterrent.“It is a time for rebuilding the partnership between government and science and technology to meet today’s challenges as well as tomorrow’s,” he said.Anastasio described the relationship between national preparedness and the changing needs as having created a spiral effect in which issues spiral in and out of the national security picture. He said the labs’ role as stewards who keep science vital has enabled them to meet new challenges, despite shrinking federal and industrial investments and the shifting panorama of security threats.Because the laboratories began anticipating the need to counter terrorism in the early ’90s, he offered in one example, “We had the discretion to cobble together some effort to figure out what we could do.” Some of those feasibility and demonstration technologies were brought into play immediately after the events of 9/11.Another example of scientific investment paying off, he said, was in the area of high performance computing, developed to help maintain the nuclear stockpile without testing, but with current contributions to earth and ocean modeling for climate projections and genomic research.While he avoided specific policy suggestions, he did suggest that there was a greater confidence during the Cold War, so that when a challenge was given they had more freedom to figure out how to meet it.“If we can get back to that trusting relationship, it would make our effectiveness at the laboratory a lot higher,” he said.Anastasio spoke for about 20 minutes and answered a number of questions from the Washington audience.Woodrow Wilson Center Director Lee Hamilton introduced the lab director with the reminder that the center is the nation’s formal memorial to the scholar-president Woodrow Wilson and that its purpose is “to bring thinkers and doers together in the hope and belief that frank and open dialogue would lead to better policy.”In summing up the dialogue, Hamilton noted the frequency with which the word “mechanism” had been used. Many of the questioners sought “mechanisms” for achieving the kind of mutual understanding that Anastasio called for.In answer to one of those questions seeking a mechanism, Anastasio suggested, “Mechanisms like the ones we are trying today – forums, workshops, a variety of ways to bring together a diversity of people from a diversity of ideas.”