WASHINGTON — EVER since the world's first nuclear test exploded in the New Mexico desert in 1945, United States national labs such as Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore, and Sandia have labored at the cutting edge of science.
While the design of sophisticated nuclear weapons has been their main focus, the US labs have also made strides in areas ranging from decoding genetics to the disposal of radioactive waste. Thirty-one scientists associated with US labs have won Nobel Prizes.
But with the end of the cold war, US labs have struggled to define their missions and maintain a sense of purpose. Now a major study by a federal commission is recommending consolidation of national labs, and major management change - but no lab closings.
The main theme of the commission report is that they need to be managed ``more strategically,'' says Secretary of Energy Hazel O'Leary.
Specifically, the commission, headed by former Motorola Corporation chairman Robert Galvin, suggested that the labs not flop about looking for some kind of new mission areas, but instead focus their areas on their core strengths: weapons work, energy and environment research, and basic science breakthroughs.
The panel also recommended against turning the whole Department of Energy-controlled lab complex over to the Department of Defense. It urged construction of the National Ignition Facility, a controversial nuclear-test project currently slated for Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, in northern California.
It suggested that more rigorous reviews be conducted of Cooperative Research and Development Agreements (CRADAs), research pacts between labs and industry intended to transfer lab technology into the private sector.
The Galvin report said much of Lawrence Livermore's weapons work should be scaled back, but that the lab - thought to be on many budget cutters' hit lists - should not be closed.
Competition between Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos in New Mexico is still necessary to ensure national security, argued Edward Teller, developer of the H-bomb, at a Congressional hearing earlier this week. To save money at the labs, the government should instead attack ``micromanagement'' of lab activities, Dr. Teller said.
Indeed, the Galvin report found that many of the labs had to submit budget documents to more than 100 different offices. There are no fewer than 12 layers of management between the assistant secretary of Energy for Defense Programs and a bench weapons scientist.
``Everyone wants in on the act,'' said the report, with Energy Department headquarters, Congress, and numerous federal boards and offices poking their noses into lab business.
The lab system may be ``oversized,'' says the report, but much money could be saved by running some labs more like private businesses. ``Rarely have major labs been looked at as corporate structures,'' says Ms. O'Leary.
Meanwhile, critics continue to complain that the US is maintaining an unneeded, weapons-centered infrastructure contrary to post-cold-war needs. Lawrence Livermore should be eliminated, public-interest groups claim, and its functions transferred to Los Alamos.