National Labs Look To New Order Roles

RECENTLY, the directors of three national laboratories (S. S. Hecker of Los Alamos, A. Narath of Sandia, and J. H. Nuckolls of Lawrence Livermore) sent a letter to President-elect Clinton urging him to use the technological resources of the labs to rebuild America's economy. They cited the labs' supercomputing capabilities that can help create an "information superhighway network" that can help "solve problems in business, industry, education, and health care."

This amounted to a proposal to change the mission of the national laboratories from national security to economic competitiveness. The three labs employ about 100,000 people and spend $11 billion annually. Historically, their mission has been to deter threats to national security, especially threats from the Soviet bloc. The Soviet Union collapsed in 1990 and the 15 independent republics were formed in 1991. Eleven of those republics are loosely connected in the Commonwealth of Independent States.

The republics of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine are the primary forces in the commonwealth, and the only forces which might be able to threaten the national security of the United States. However, the threat to US national security has significantly diminished. As a result, resources given to the national laboratories to deter these reduced threats may also decrease unless an increasing portion of their effort becomes devoted to deterring threats to the economic competitiveness of the US.

Is this conversion from guns to butter feasible for the national labs? Traditionally, the labs conducted R&D in an insulated, secretive atmosphere. They were "high quality/cost doesn't matter much" organizations which were rigid, internally-oriented, and not open to change. These attributes made the labs very effective in achieving their guns-focused mission. However, a butter-focused mission implies a degree of openness to market forces and an entrepreneurial spirit.

UNDERSTANDABLY, because such a change in focus will ensure the long-term well-being of the national labs, their directors seem confident that the labs can undergo this metamorphosis effectively and efficiently. It requires a drastic transformation in the objectives, strategy, culture, skill mix, structure and leadership of the national laboratories. Moving from guns to butter requires that the labs change their mission from physical security to economic security, change their objectives from producing ph ysical deterrents to producing distinctive economic-growth competence, change their closed and rigid culture to an open, flexible market-driven and customer-oriented culture; change their focus from a small number of sponsors to a large number of customers, lower the high-cost structure, add business management know-how to their existing science and engineering skills, strengthen a bottom-up approach in their modus operandi, and add managerial and entrepreneurial leadership to their science-trained leadersh ip.

Changing the mission, objectives, strategy, and structure can be relatively easy. But to implement these changes amounts to a restructuring of the national laboratories. This entails changing the work culture of about 100,000 employees, increasing productivity, becoming market-driven, improving business skills of laboratory personnel, and increasing managerial and entrepreneurial skills of the top management of the labs.

In the past three years, the national laboratories have been expanding their technology-transfer programs and showcasing the entrepreneurial spirit reflected in the programs' Cooperative Research and Development Agreements with the industrial sector to indicate how entire labs might transform themselves. Past studies have pointed out a lack of marketing skills and other weaknesses not easily corrected.

The real test of the directors of the national laboratories lies in their ability to navigate a new course for a post-cold-war peace economy. Their ability to transform their behemoth labs remains an open question.

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