This article was originally published by the San Francisco Chronicle.
When I first began monitoring Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, a working scientist there told me, “Follow the money if you want to know what is really going on.” Look at the Department of Energy’s 2012 budget request for the Livermore Lab and it becomes apparent that PR has an inverse relationship to budget.
Some 89 percent of the funds are for nuclear weapons activities. Yet, more than 89 percent of the press releases showcase programs like renewable energy and science that receive less than 3 percent of the spending. This has caused many to believe that Livermore Lab is converting from nuclear weapons to civilian science.
A major consequence of the chasm between public perception and where the money actually goes is that science at Livermore continues to exist on the margins – underfunded, understaffed and at the mercy of the 800-pound gorilla of the nuclear weapons budget.
Witness a recent press release announcing that Livermore Lab has teamed with a renewable energy company that has developed floating, tethered towers so that wind turbines can generate more power by locating them in deeper water. Livermore will model ocean circulation and wake turbulence to predict power generation. This data will improve offshore wind-farm siting. Imagine what could be accomplished if renewable energy received more than 0.6 percent of the federal monies at Livermore Lab.
Consider the many benefits of transitioning Livermore from nuclear-weapons design to a “green lab,” focused on nonpolluting energy development, climate research, basic sciences, nonproliferation and environmental cleanup. Livermore Lab is uniquely qualified to contribute in these areas. The lab already employs the right mix of physicists, other scientists, engineers, materials specialists, and support personnel for these undertakings.
Further, Livermore Lab houses current programs in all of these areas, albeit supporting them with miserly funding. What if these programs were to receive 89 percent of the budget? How might civilian science at the lab grow in scope and democratize in practice? What might that transformation do to boost employee morale and increase community acceptance?
Our country needs its national laboratories devoted to clean energy, environmental restoration, developing a “green” economy and reducing nuclear dangers more than it needs a new nuclear bomb. Transforming Livermore to meet pressing 21st century challenges is technically feasible. It can be accomplished without adding new monies to the federal budget.
What is lacking is political will. Today, congressional committees are looking at the Department of Energy’s 2012 budget request, with each committee marking up its own version of the budget. The final appropriations bill will go to the president before Oct. 1, the beginning of the fiscal year. Timely public input can influence spending priorities.
Historically, social and political changes have come about when the people have stepped forward to lead. The politicians then followed. Change may not happen overnight, but if we all work together, we can ensure that Livermore Lab’s public relations and its actual budget become one and the same.