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Brain gain

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By Roger Snodgrass

Call it LANL Jr., or LANL dot Alt, an alternative laboratory.A Los Alamos group is trying once again to grow another leg for northern New Mexico’s wobbly one-legged economic engine to rest on.A petition that circulated last fall from Los Alamos County residents to members of the congressional delegation called for a number of ways to broaden LANL’s national security mission to address such matters as alternative energy sources, international nonproliferation, nuclear safety, and new economic and national health modeling.In recent months, laboratory managers have increasingly re-emphasized many of these areas as potential “new opportunities” but specific measures to reduce overhead costs have not been visible.Included in the alternative proposals floated in September was an explicit remedy for reducing overhead. Those indirect costs, tacked on as a fixed percentage to support the administrative structure, were said to have grown 30 percent in the previous two years. The proposal suggested dividing expensive nuclear work into a separate cost structure and creating a “work-for-others unit” that could contract with other U.S. agencies at lower overhead rates suitable for non-nuclear work.Along those lines, the petition suggested “creating an unclassified research lab operated by New Mexico universities at Los Alamos – with 40 percent lower operating costs as required by science funding agencies.”The concept is an evolution of a proposal developed in 2005 as tensions mounted between former Los Alamos National Laboratory Director Pete Nanos and some offended employees.  A widely shared assessment of the mood at the time, as one letter to the Monitor put it, was that morale was “at its lowest point” in 30 years.A preliminary proposal was written and offered to the Physical Science Laboratory (PSL) at New Mexico State University in 2005, similar to the recent idea, suggesting a “University Affiliated Research Center” or UARC, as a model.Some well-known national laboratories, including Cal Tech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory and Johns Hopkin’s Applied Physics Laboratories, are organized as UARCs.Jay Jordan, the director of PSL, in a recent interview said New Mexico State University is well aware that northern New Mexico has “a huge talent pool sitting up there.”That resource fits into NMSU’s plans in two ways. One is an interest, Jordan said, in “offering courses in the northern New Mexico area that aren’t being offered by UNM or N.M. Tech as a part of our academic outreach.” The other expands on the extension offices NMSU maintains in every county of the state, some of which have taken on new roles.“Adding an R&D capability is a natural extension if we could make it work,” he said.PSL has classified contracts with DOE and NASA and, without competing directly with LANL, Jordan emphasized, would be in a position to employ people that have been laid off, retired or “de-scoped” from the laboratory.An updated version of a local UARC is now in the very preliminary stages of discussions among interested parties.Mark Dunham, who manages defense department satellite programs at LANL, said the alternative structure might be a vehicle for people who are leaving the lab in the current wave.“It would be a lean and mean organization,” he said. “The object would be to empower principal investigators who are in a position to bring their own customer into an organization that doesn’t have to be based on the DOE cost structure.”More closely linked to LANL, Rob Duncan, the director of the lab’s Institute for Advanced Studies, said his organization is operating in the same spirit, developing teaming projects with state universities to pursue new research opportunities that have the concurrence of LANL management.ASI coordinates a consortium composed of the three graduate research universities of the state; the University of New Mexico, New Mexico State and the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology have a project started and another one set to start shortly.“I saw what Mark (Dunham) had prepared,” he said. “It looked very proactive to me.”“I like the concept,” said George Chandler, a local lawyer. “I have no personal interest in being a principal investigator or lawyering for it,” but he agreed to help get the word out.“I’ve been involved in economic activities since I was on the council, and even after I was on the council,” said Chandler, who was a county councilor from 1981-1989 and a member of the Trinity Advisory Committee.“There have been spin-offs, lab stuff, startups that have always bumped along at a fairly low level.”County Councilor Mike Wheeler said he had seen the proposal.“They’ve had contact with our congressional delegation,” he said. “What I wanted them to know is that one of our primary goals in the county is to diversify the economy.”High-tech jobs are a perfect match, according to development studies the county has commissioned.“This looks like a perfect fit to match some of the county goals,” Wheeler said. “We’d like to look at a business case proposal, have our screening committee look at it and see if it’s the kind of risk that we’re willing to accept.”Chandler plans to pull together a kickoff meeting to begin “an organizational period where people decide what they are going to be comfortable with.” Interested parties can call him, 505-662-5900 or e-mail geo_c@cybermesa .com.