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A Roundabout Tale of the Culture of National Labs

by Reviewed By NANCY B. JACKSON
February 16, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 7

THE NATIONAL LABS: Science in an American System, 1947–1974,
by Peter J. Westwick, Harvard University Press, 2003,403 pages, $51.50 (ISBN: 0-674-00948-7)
by Peter J. Westwick, Harvard University Press, 2003,403 pages, $51.50 (ISBN: 0-674-00948-7)

In his book "The National Labs: Science in an American System, 1947– 1974," Peter J. Westwick argues that the labs "displayed the individuality and interdependence of organisms." That is, they behaved like creatures in an ecosystem where they influenced the environment as well as experienced the environment acting on them. Westwick coins the term "systemicity" to describe the "connections among the national laboratories and the ways in which the interactions among the labs influenced their evolution." He then goes on for 287 pages to thoroughly and unequivocally prove his point.

The nonlinear telling of history is sometimes difficult to follow because of the large cast of characters and program names. Keeping track is difficult without a good reference list. Nonetheless, the ecological system and the influences on its environment is an excellent metaphor that explains this uniquely American system of science, and the book provides a well-documented, thorough analysis of the early years of the national labs.

The most striking thought that comes to mind when reading this book is the similarity of the national lab culture of 1947–74, when it was run by AEC, to the present lab system, which has been run by the Department of Energy since 1978. In the early years, the long-standing contractor-operated, government-owned (COGO) model was formed and, like now, most labs were managed by universities and only a few by industrial companies. Westwick reports a relationship between Congress and the labs during the early years that is remarkably similar to the current one.

Early work at national labs included development and testing of atomic weapons. XX-39 Climax was a 61-kiloton device fired on June 4, 1953, at the Nevada Test Site.
Early work at national labs included development and testing of atomic weapons. XX-39 Climax was a 61-kiloton device fired on June 4, 1953, at the Nevada Test Site.

In essence, there was a symbiotic relationship between the labs' congressional oversight committee (joint committee of the AEC), AEC, and the laboratories. As the labs grew, so did the importance of the joint committee and AEC. Each of the three aspects of this triangle shaped and formed the others. Today, this symbiosis, although sometimes strained, remains between congressional supporters, DOE, and the laboratories.

Many arguments supporting the labs have remained similar and relevant through the decades. In fact, I have often given these arguments to potential sponsors, not realizing I was carrying on a lengthy tradition. The scientist-on-tap argument is enduring: The U.S. needs scientists for meeting future national security challenges--therefore, we must provide engaging research to attract the best and brightest for our nation's future. The way the labs differentiate themselves from academia also endures: The labs are multidisciplinary and can supply an interdisciplinary team to solve large and difficult problems in a timely fashion. In contrast, universities are largely for principal-investigator-driven fundamental research where education is the primary goal.

However, the idealized model of multiple labs in competition with one another has not fared so well since the Cold War ended. Multiple labs and duplicative programs were encouraged in the early years and tolerated throughout the Cold War because of the belief that competition would lead to the best scientific and technical results. Westwick argues that the "competition argument" may have been unjustified, but it was particularly compelling during the Cold War since the belief in the strengths of competition was a major ideological difference between us and our Communist adversary.

Perhaps the most significant, if not unexpected, insight of Westwick's research is that the approach to funding scientific research at the labs was decidedly unscientific. Westwick consistently documents how political savvy and marketing skills, not necessarily high-minded ideals or a scientific ethic, became primary factors in laboratory success. In the ecological metaphor of his book, each lab, like a living organism, sought an environment conducive to its survival. As described by Westwick, the currency of the symbiotic relationships that developed between lab and sponsor was prestige and influence, in an ecosystem of world events. Time has shown the symbiotic model to be a successful strategy for the survival of the labs--none of them has vanished, and several new labs have been created. Whether they provide a good value for the nation's security dollar is a judgment best left to policymakers and voters.

And whether the labs' survival is the best thing for science is a thorny issue. Unquestionably, great science and engineering have taken place at the national laboratories in the past 55 years. Undoubtedly, better management of the system could have provided a better return on investment. As the federal budget likely tightens in the upcoming years, questions about whether all the labs can be maintained at their present level will need to be addressed. As a scientist and a citizen, it would be comforting for me to believe that major decisions regarding the labs will be made more scientifically and less politically in the future. Given the history, and parallels between the past and present, science will probably be the choice with the long odds.

Nancy B. Jackson is manager of the Department of Chemical & Biological Imaging, Sensing & Analysis at Sandia National Laboratories and a member of the ACS Board of Directors.


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