WASHINGTON — Sixty years ago, J. Robert Oppenheimer, the World War II director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, proved that there are some things that government-university partnerships can do better than any private-sector entity. In just 27 months - from April 1943 to August 1945 - Oppenheimer and his team of scientists produced a combat-ready atomic bomb. The military head of the Manhattan Project, Gen. Leslie Groves had awarded the contract for the new laboratory to the University of California because he understood that no private corporation was capable of attracting the talented scientists needed to meet this challenge.
Important lessons for our national security are implicit in this history, lessons the Bush administration ignores as it prepares to turn over much of the management of the Los Alamos lab to a private defense contractor. Everything we know about the Manhattan Project and the subsequent history of the lab suggests that this is a mistake and a lost opportunity.
Most people still think of Los Alamos as strictly a weapons lab. But since the end of the Cold War many of the lab's scientists have been doing research on fuel cells, solar energy, fusion, and other cutting-edge technologies. It is not an exaggeration to say that the viability of our nation's economic and environmental future depends on achieving breakthroughs in these fields.
This is not work that can be done most effectively by a defense contractor. History suggests that only the government can marshal the commitment of will and resources necessary to effectively combat global warming. Only the government can inspire scientists with a sense that this is a national mission. And only a great university can create a research atmosphere that will attract the talented scientists needed to get the job done.
Nevertheless, the Bush administration has decreed that the University of California must partner with a defense contractor if it is to bid to manage Los Alamos. UC, partnered with Bechtel, BWX Technologies, and the Washington Group, will compete against the University of Texas, which has paired with defense contractor Lockheed Martin. The administration will award the contract in December.
Astonishingly, the government's bidding criteria amount to a corporate giveaway. You'd think this administration would assume the private sector could run this lab more efficiently and for less money than a nonprofit academic institution. Not so. The UC administrators have been operating the $2.1 billion lab for $8.7 million in management fees. By next year, according to the terms of the Bush administration bidding criteria, this yearly management fee will escalate to between $63 million and $79 million.
All of this smacks of another corporate boondoggle. Worse, it probably will destroy an institution that has the potential to extricate us from our growing environmental quagmire. To ensure that Los Alamos work continues at the highest level, the facility should be divided into two separate entities: a weapons laboratory run by a defense contractor and an unclassified environmental research complex managed by a university.
"Let's give it back to the Indians," Oppenheimer purportedly said of Los Alamos soon after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Unlike some of his colleagues, Oppenheimer never worked on atomic weapons again. Instead, he spent the rest of his career as the director of the Institute for Advanced Study. Over the years, its scholars have given us important theoretical insights that led to innovations including the first real computer. Oppenheimer understood how to encourage scientists to do their best work, and he would be appalled by the Bush administration's plans.
It is time to change Los Alamos's mission. Give the defense contractors the job of dealing with our arsenal of nuclear weapons. But let's invest in a new Manhattan Project committed to winning the race against pollution in the 21st century. Otherwise, perhaps we really should "give it back to the Indians."
• Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin are coauthors of "American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer." ©2005 Los Angeles Times.