INTERVIEW: Lab focuses on retaining staff


John C. Browne

John C. Browne became Los Alamos National Laboratory director in November 1997. He joined the Energy Department's New Mexico nuclear weapons lab in 1979 as a group leader in the physics division. Browne has held several positions at the laboratory. ''

He has a bachelor of science degree in physics from Drexel University and a doctorate in physics from Duke University.

Staff writer Tony Lee Orr interviewed Browne recently about computer security and staffing at Los Alamos, subjects that have been under scrutiny following alleged lapses.

Who's In Charge

Nancy W. Tomford

Acting Chief Information Officer

John Przysucha

Deputy Associate CIO for Cybersecurity

Patrick Hargett

Acting Associate CIO for Operations

Howard Landon

Acting Director, Office of Special Projects

John A. Gordon

Administrator, National Nuclear Security Administration


(in millions, fiscal 1999)

Burns and Roe Inc.$103.5
Science Applications
International Corp.
Booz, Allen & Hamilton Inc.48.0
Kenrob and Associates21.9
US West Communications15.9
Essex Corp.12.0
Software Control International Inc.9.6
PAI Corp.7.7
Bell Atlantic Corp.7.5

'Sources for this GCN Snapshot include the Energy Department and Input of Chantilly, Va.

GCN:'Has the Wen Ho Lee situation affected staffing?

Los Alamos National Lab workers confer amid Blue Mountain's stacks. The lab is using the SGI computers for its supercomputing initiative. The supercomputers model nuclear explosions, since under a nuclear test ban treaty the United States is no longer allowed to explode nuclear devices. The mathematical models estimate whether older nuclear devices are still viable.

BROWNE: We have not seen any appreciable change in our overall attrition rate from the past five years. While it is true that we have lost some employees in key scientific areas, like computer science, there are several factors besides security. The many opportunities in the private sector, last year's cuts in Laboratory Directed Research and Development funding, and last year's reduction to our travel budget have had just as much to do with people leaving as any security-related matters. Labwide staffing levels, however, have not dropped significantly.

GCN:'Should more effort be put into recruiting new scientific blood or retaining those with institutional knowledge who may be looking to leave?

BROWNE: Both. The laboratory is working hard to retain employees by demonstrating our commitment to achieving a workable system for science and security, and addressing other workplace issues to demonstrate Los Alamos is an employer of choice.

We continue to recruit new outstanding scientists through strategic hiring, our extensive post-doctoral programs and through partnerships with universities.

GCN:'How do you attract top scientists to work in the nation's nuclear programs under such strict security, given the lucrative positions in the private sector?

BROWNE: Los Alamos continues to be competitive by offering top-notch scientists opportunities to work on problems of national importance, to work on the cutting edge of science in a wide spectrum of disciplines, and to work with a peer group that includes some of the best scientific minds in the world.

GCN:'Many times in the past year we have heard that the national laboratories' culture has contributed to security problems. How are workers dealing with the culture shock caused by more stringent security?

BROWNE: The benefits of open scientific collaboration and the necessities of national security have been a fact of life at Los Alamos since 1943. Manhattan Project head Gen. Leslie Groves and the first lab director, J. Robert Oppenheimer, broke new ground in those days as they developed a system to decompartmentalize the way secret scientific information would be shared by the lab's first scientists.

Los Alamos' employees have always worked in a security-conscious environment and, aside from a few notable exceptions, have behaved responsibly within the restrictions of this security culture [GCN, June 19, Page 66].

One of the lab's greatest strengths has always been its ability to change according to the requirements placed upon it in the national interest. We are confident that, working with the National Nuclear Security Administration, we will be a stronger and more focused laboratory with a strong, yet rational, security program.

GCN:'Congress has suggested moving the labs into the Defense Department. Is Los Alamos better prepared to manage scientific behavior and security than DOD?

BROWNE: The laboratory's management by the University of California has served the nation well for 57 years and has fostered the scientific excellence for which Los Alamos is known. The Energy Department is currently negotiating with UC to extend that laboratory management contract. With the establishment of the National Nuclear Security Administration within Energy, and the commitment of the university and the lab to security issues, we are confident that a secure environment at Los Alamos can be maintained.

National Nuclear Security Administration
The National Nuclear Security Administration will oversee nuclear security at weapons laboratories managed by the Energy Department. Air Force Gen. John A. Gordon is director.

Lawmakers created NNSA last June partly in response to a report by the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board that revealed lab security suffered from muddled internal bureaucracy and a weak chain of command [GCN, Feb. 21, Page 1].

Congress is banking on Gordon's ability to protect the nation's nuclear secrets. He will direct physical and computer security at Los Alamos National Laboratory and other Energy research and nuclear weapons facilities that store vast amounts of sensitive data.

Retired Gen. Eugene A. Habiger, Energy's security czar, said the department likely will consider reclassifying some data such as that contained on two hard drives that disappeared, then mysteriously reappeared, at the Los Alamos lab. The changes would relabel the information as more sensitive.

Maureen I. McCarthy will serve as the NNSA's chief scientist. John C. Todd is the subagency's chief of defense nuclear security, Catherine Eberwein serves as defense counterintelligence chief, and Ken Baker is the acting deputy administrator for defense nonproliferation.

Madelyn Creedon, deputy administrator for defense programs, will oversee programs at Energy's Los Alamos, Sandia, Lawrence Livermore and Oak Ridge, Tenn., labs and at sites such as the Nevada Test Site and the Savannah River Site.

Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) said in June that the creation of NNSA is a wake-up call to the Energy Department. If security does not improve, Congress will take further action, which could include transferring the labs to the Defense Department, he said.


  • Records management: Look beyond the NARA mandates

    Pandemic tests electronic records management

    Between the rush enable more virtual collaboration, stalled digitization of archived records and managing records that reside in datasets, records management executives are sorting through new challenges.

  • boy learning at home (Travelpixs/

    Tucson’s community wireless bridges the digital divide

    The city built cell sites at government-owned facilities such as fire departments and libraries that were already connected to Tucson’s existing fiber backbone.

Stay Connected