Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, like many longstanding research and development institutions, traditionally has been a place where employees spent most of their careers until they retired.
That made for a stable work force and plenty of institutional knowledge.
That's changing big time for the lab's director Kim Budil. During the Livermore Lab Foundation's celebration of the lab's 70th anniversary Sept. 8, she said that about 40% of the lab's workforce has been there five years or less. She's facing the challenge of maintaining the unique capabilities that Lawrence Livermore boasts while also keeping the culture intact with a new workforce that tends to be much more professionally mobile.
She spoke on a panel featuring nine former directors (two appearing by video).
During his remarks earlier, George Miller stressed that keeping the lab's core values and guiding principles intact was the overriding reason he accepted the directorship during the transition from University of California management to a private sector company with the university plus three for-profit companies with deep experience in the United States' national defense. Miller said his father taught him that when you face a crisis, what's important are your principles and values.
"I saw the transition, in many respects, as a culture war that was a battle for the soul of the lab," he told the invited crowd of more than 200 people at Garre Winery's event center in Livermore. Preserving the core values and principles that founders E.O. Lawrence and Edward Teller established was of paramount importance. He cited three of the values that he felt must be protected:
1. The motivation for decisions were based on integrity and public service to the country not the profit.
2. The most important service the lab can offer the country is by continuing to focus on big ideas and big challenges.
3. Every lab employee "is part of the soul, spirit and the driving force that has allowed the laboratory to contribute so much."
Miller cited earlier remarks by Johnny Foster, the senior lab director there who turns 100 on Sept. 18, where Foster talked about how important Lawrence was in establishing the lab and its culture.
Parney Albright, the only non home-grown lab director, brings a range of defense-related experiences to his remarks and his directorship. As Budil said, nuclear weapons that had faded from consciousness in Washington D.C. now find open ears of policymakers. Albright pointed out that the lab's nuclear weapons mission, maintaining the viability of the weapons stockpile and modernizing them as necessary, was going to be wrapped up in the next 10-20 years.
And with it goes the steady source of federal funds coming from the National Nuclear Security Administration, a division of the Department of Energy. The lab has expertise and capabilities in many areas, but finding federal sponsors who will open checkbooks will be a major challenge.
"A key strategic question for the laboratory is what are the competencies you want to pursue?" he said. Deciding those and then building the relationships with key agencies in Washington D.C. such as the Department of Defense and the intelligence agencies to develop the funding.
Albright singled out what he described as Livermore's unique capabilities compared to other national labs and defense contractors.
"You have the unique capability to innovate and create something brand new ... making the impossible possible (to quote the theme of the day). You have that ability to take that innovation all the way through the chain and deliver a capability to someone who can make it in volume or just to take a one-off to a user," Albright said.
He built some of his comments off Bruce Tarter's earlier talk. Tarter, who has written a history of the lab, described some of the major accomplishments and the changes they entailed. When Teller and Lawrence started pushing for a second lab to compete with Los Alamos, the original nuclear lab pushed back. Livermore prevailed in that debate, something that Foster celebrated in his comments declaring that competition is good. He's worked both in government and the private sector in the defense industry.
Teller, to his dismay, was referred to as the father of the hydrogen bomb, the device that established Livermore's place in the nuclear weapons complex.
Building off that, Tarter related, that by the mid-'80s every weapon in the stockpile, with the exception of one, was designed in Livermore. One of Livermore's major contributions was reducing the size of the device so the Polaris nuclear tipped missile could be launched from submarines and greatly increased the deterrent to the Soviet Union.
The next big leap came when lab leaders embraced lasers and their potential for nuclear fusion, as opposed to the fission reactions in the weapons. That required different capabilities in the work force so it brought workers with specific skills to the lab.
The next big step, during the Reagan Administration, was the Strategic Defense Initiative championed by Lowell Wood and Teller. It also required new employees who knew about space for the "Brilliant Pebbles" program and other elements.
Another big leap, built around the test ban treaty, was the re-invigoration of the supercomputing industry that was moribund in the United States. The need to model complex nuclear reactions demanded new capabilities, particularly given the major new facilities that three labs were building as part of the stockpile stewardship program (the National Ignition Facility at Livermore). It was the lab's partnership with IBM that took the parallel computing capabilities to the next level and Livermore has remained at the cutting edge of super computing.
In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the lab's small biology program grew as bio defense became a priority. Tarter, admitting he was well removed from the day-to-day operations, asked what's been happening since the early 2000s. He posed his question before Albright's discussion about deciding the strategic direction.
Whatever direction Budil and her leadership team, and the company board decide to move, they'll be doing it, as she said, with a much younger and less experienced work force. The lab already has nearly transitioned to a nuclear weapons design facility without any designers who actually tested a device.