July 13, 2001

Groups focus on growing Lab's intellectual assets

Over the years, the Laboratory has actively sought ways to protect and invest in its intellectual capital. Recruiting and retaining the brightest minds in science and engineering are crucial to the Lab’s continued success in remaining a premier institution to serve the nation’s interests and needs.

To make the Laboratory an attractive environment for both current and future employees, we must continually seek input to assess key workplace issues and to identify suggestions for improvement. This was one of the goals of the series of three employee focus groups, held on March 22, following our Science Day celebration. We promised to report back to all employees the issues raised by these groups. In this column, I’d like to share with you the issues identified in the focus groups.

First, a few words on how the focus groups were formed. The groups were divided into three demographic areas: early career scientists and engineers and postdocs; mid-career scientists and engineers; and senior scientists and engineers. The groups represented diverse scientific fields, race, ethnicity, and gender. Focus group members were chosen based on recommendations from the programs and directorates while ensuring balance and broad coverage of the Laboratory’s diverse groups and disciplines. Approximately 60 employees participated.

The concept of the Science Day celebration and the focus group sessions was suggested by Gen. John A. Gordon, administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and was successfully held at the three NNSA national laboratories — Livermore, Los Alamos, and Sandia.

The purpose of the focus groups discussions was to assess the health of science and technology and to provide helpful input to DOE and the laboratory. Vic Reis, the former assistant secretary for DOE Defense Programs, facilitated the three LLNL sessions, which were also attended by Dr. Maureen I. McCarthy, NNSA chief scientist, and several members from the Office of Science, in particular, James F. Decker, acting director, Office of Science and Toni Joseph, director, Laboratory Policy and Infrastructure Management.

Each focus group lasted approximately one to one-and-a-half hours. A report of these focus groups was submitted to Gen. Gordon. Similar reports were also issued from the focus groups held at Sandia and Los Alamos national laboratories. Some of the key issues that came out of the LLNL focus group discussions are detailed below.

The Lab environment
Despite myriad challenges we have recently faced, the Laboratory’s scientists and engineers generally remain positive about the quality of life at the Laboratory and its world-class science and computer expertise, and are optimistic about their collective ability to improve the environment for science and technology in the future.

What the focus group members seek most is a return to the flexibility of a decade ago, when scientists felt they had more intellectual "elbow room" to work on new or emerging scientific ideas. Decreased funding — whether for programs, inviting scientific speakers to the Lab or attending scientific meetings — has created a feeling among scientists that opportunities for continued scientific growth are becoming limited. Concomitant with decreased funding is an increased emphasis on oversight, safety and security regulations, excessive paperwork, and often over-zealous interpretations of regulations.

The focus group members recognize the competitive job market and high cost of living in the Bay Area have hindered the Lab’s ability to recruit and retain employees. Compounding this problem (which has the potential of making the Lab a less-attractive employer), is increased management and oversight by DOE, Congress, and other outside forces.

The early career scientists felt their managers were so overburdened with administrative requirements that they were becoming full-time administrators with reduced opportunities to participate in research management.

Focus group participants reported that in areas where guidance is vague, Laboratory staff has become overly cautious in following regulations that have unclear boundaries. Laboratory employees take security and safety very seriously. This has, at times, led to an overly conservative approach to implementing guidance and directives, and may have resulted in more restrictive, self-inflicted requirements than were originally intended by the rules. Examples of this include treatment of foreign nationals, sensitive-country restrictions, sensitive but unclassified information, export control, and enforcing "one-size-fits-all" training requirements.

Participants expressed general consensus in favor of protecting the benefits and the culture that the University of California brings to the Laboratory. Members of the focus groups urged the Laboratory to make greater use of the University in recruitment and retention, improving morale, continuing to ensure the quality of Laboratory research through peer review, broadening collaborations, encouraging publications, promoting outside recognition of the outstanding science at the Laboratory, as well as protecting and enhancing science for the next generation of researchers at Livermore.

Recommendations generated from the three focus day groups at each of the three NNSA national laboratories have now been combined and analyzed. The analysis helped identify common issues and was used to identify and define action items for the laboratories and NNSA management.

The next steps
Director Bruce Tarter and I are committed to improving the work environment for science and technology, including empowerment of our scientific managers in a manner that can ensure a healthy, inspired, and dedicated workforce, and to attract new scientists and engineers to carry out the DOE and NNSA critical national security and science and technology missions.

Through the employee survey just completed, we hope to gather additional detailed information about how employees view the quality of work life issues at LLNL. Once all of the data are tabulated, the Lab will identify priority issues and develop plans to address them. We will continue to work with NNSA, Los Alamos, and Sandia to find ways to improve the workplace environment across the complex.

Intellectual resources remain the greatest assets of the Laboratory — a cross-disciplinary team approach and innovative thinking are still very much a part of Lab culture. Through the suggestions of these focus groups and the employee survey, the Laboratory will work to address these issues and maintain the spirit of multidisciplinary research that has made the Lab what it is today — one of the premier research facilities in the world.