Diverse science at N.M. labs

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By Harold Morgan

When someone else sets up the argument, columnists become happy. A page one headline and story about a new device from Sandia National Laboratories generated happiness. That’s because the device has nothing to do with nuclear weapons, so far as I can tell. Nor is it military. The relationship to national security seems direct, again from this layman’s view, though that relationship travels the public health route, certainly a national security matter.
The argument here is that New Mexico’s federal research sector — Los Alamos National Laboratory, Sandia, White Sands Missile Range, and other military research and development organizations — is diverse, tackling big science topics well beyond the core national defense-nuclear weapons subjects. The topic was a five-inch cube of plastic called SpinDx designed for field use to quickly test people for toxins, bacteria, or viruses. SpinDx was developed at Sandia’s Livermore, Calif., branch. Collaborators include the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, the Department of Agriculture’s Western Regional Research Center and Bio-Rad Laboratories of California.
Gaining a general sense of Sandia (and Los Alamos) used to be difficult. Then came the Internet. Today’s report comes from public information, much of it at Sandia.gov. More people should look, governors and legislators, for example. The public dismissal of the labs might ease. You have heard the reflex statement, “The labs are wonderful but we need to diversify our economy and depend less on federal money.”
A heroin-cocaine overtone comes with saying “depend,” as if people in the north central Rio Grande Valley mainline the federal money. That money is hugely important as are the jobs and families it supports. People do work for this money. Offhand dismissal is ignorant.
SpinDx exemplifies something fascinating, small and nonnuclear. Note the involvement of the three outside organizations. However space limits push us back to the general picture.
Sandia’s mantra is “exceptional service in the national interest.” The official description is “a multi-program engineering and science laboratory operated by Sandia Corporation, a Lockheed Martin Company, for the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration.”
The organizational brag list appears at sandia.gov/about/history/index.html. The accomplishments date to 1949. The first spin off was the Laminar Flow Clean Room in 1960.
Sandia.gov opens with eight “national priorities” windows scrolling across the screen. They show energy, nonproliferation, defense, climate, infrastructure, homeland security, counterterrorism, cyber-security and nuclear weapons. Point to a window. A short statement describes the work and invites a further point and click. The energy click brings a brief description of the overall energy security program with five topics — renewable, transportation, nuclear, fossil and efficiency — and 26 tags for more specific topics such as nuclear energy, photovoltaics and solid-state lighting. A click on one of the tags leads to reports published about the topic. Within the national priorities, Sandia lists four missions — nuclear weapons, defense systems and assessments; energy, climate and infrastructure security; and international homeland and nuclear security.
The research foundations are bioscience; computing and information; engineering; geoscience; materials; nano devices and microsystems (Sandia sweats the small stuff); radiation effects and high energy density science.
A few numbers are appropriate here. Sandia’s economic report for the fiscal year ending September 30 says Sandia employed 9,957 regular and temporary employees with 8,868 in Albuquerque. There are 833 contractor employees. During the year, Sandia hired 1,307 people, 268 of them graduates of a New Mexico university. (No complaining allowed; UNM and NMSU are not Cal Tech or MIT.) Sandia also borrows people such as UNM professors for a few months at a time. Sandia spent $2.47 billion during the year.
Sandia National Laboratories is many things. Go to Sandia.gov. There is much to see, most of it more or less comprehensible to the nonscientist.