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Monday, October 18, 2010

ORNL outsmarted other Labs!

This is a long piece on the Knoxville News Blog, but very insightful on why Oak Ridge National Lab is doing so much better than LLNL...

Frank Munger's Atomic City Underground

Has ORNL outsmarted other national labs?

In a recent interview with Oak Ridge National Laboratory Director Thom Mason, I asked him about the Spallation Neutron Source and suggestions that the big-ticket project wasn't living up to expectations. I also asked him about other questions/allegations that are floating around about ORNL and the lab's more successful programs.

Mason made some intriguing comments about ORNL's success, basically embracing suggestions that the Oak Ridge lab may have had an "unfair advantage" in dramatically growing its research programs over the past decade.

''If you look at the budget growth over the last several years, since 2000 . . . we've gone from being about $650 million a year in 2000 to this year (FY 2010) we'll be close to $1.6 billion. That's money we spent. So, almost a billion dollars in growth over 10 years. That is not typical within the DOE complex. That's unusual. I mean, some labs have been going up and some have been going down and so forth, but I don't think there have been too many that have gone up from $650 million to $1.6 billion...


Anonymous said...

ORNL has been on a roll. Their biggest benefits come from the fact that:

(A) They don't have to deal with micro-management from the policy crazy bureaucrats over at NNSA

(B) They are not run by "for-profit" management

This allows them to stay concentrated on science and research. Their super-computer facilities are top rate and probably the best in the world.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, that may be part of it. The other part of it is that their labor is loaded much less than the NNSA weapons laboratories, since they don't have to sustain and maintain facilities and clearances associated with large areas and numbers of employees dealing with sensitive classified development efforts.

PNNL is the same way, and got into each of the weapons labs' lunch much earlier than ORNL. Anyone who knows what BWO stands for knows this in spades.

Another aspect in all this is that PNNL and ORNL, in order to secure more DOE/NNSA business, have adopted a much more subservient and obedient stance with respect to their prospective masters than the more arrogant, know-it-all weapon labs. For example, both ORNL and PNNL have in the past willingly turned over their base labor rates and negotiated special overhead rates with NNSA micromanagement in order to secure NNSA business.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, yeah, and yeah.

Other reasons they're on a roll:

A. Their labor and other rates are loaded much less than the NNSA weapons labs, since they don't have to maintain as many Q clearances and secure facilities. Ever tried to find an office with a STE at ORNL. Good luck.

B. ORNL, like their brethren at PNNL, have adopted a somewhat predatory approach towards poaching DOE and NNSA business that's traditionally been given to the three NNSA weapons labs. For example, both ORNL and PNNL have been extremely compliant and yielding to the demands of DOE/NNSA micro-management, turning over labor rate info and other lab loads, negotiating special less loaded rates for certain types of work for both DOE/NNSA and DoD customers, etc.

It's not that they don't have to deal with micromanagement - they take advantage of it, to the detriment to the NNSA weapons labs. Because they're "not for profit"? Give me a break. Their major expenses (facilities) are paid for by the US taxpayer, just like the NNSA labs.

Anyone ever hear of BWO? If so, you know what I'm talking about.

Anonymous said...

(B) [ORNL] are not run by "for-profit" management

Quite untrue. I have heard senior Battelle management state quite explicitly "We are not non-profit, we are tax exempt." They are very much focused on the bottom line. And professionals at business development.

They've figured out how to play the game and benefit form being a focus of their congressional delegation.

Anonymous said...

This "loading" argument keeps floating around and it's not quite right. I know that in 2007 LANL and ORNL loading were almost the same; my friends who moved there were quite surprised. Evidently the cleanup costs at ORNL (NOT Y12 -- ORNL) are part of the burden, and they're not insignificant.

ANL does have a lower burden; ORNL, however, is much closer to NNSA lab overheads.

What ORNL does well is work the political levers. They're quite amazing. It's not subservience; they seem to have figured out (unlike LANL) that gratuitously angering the funding agency purely for the sake of doing it is not always a smart path. When they make DOE mad, it's usually for something they're going to benefit from, like building a new computing center without asking first.

Their main disadvantage is their location. ORNL staff keep reappearing in NM and Livermore -- I just ran into another one today. Oak Ridge is not that great a place to live.

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