I can hear the whiners already, "But what about the science?" Listen. Los Alamos and the other DOE labs are defense contractors. They are weapons merchants who use science as a marketing gimmick. Their real business is sucking money out of the government.
Weapons labs should do weapons, not science. It's too expensive to do science in a weapons lab. You can tell by comparing DOE lab performance to labs funded by another federal agency, the NIH.
Think of this as a "good government" issue. Take a brief break from electioneering & let's look at it.
"A drug dealer has been found with classified information ... from the Los Alamos National Laboratory nuclear weapons testing facility ...
"This appears to be a new low, even drug dealers can get classified information out of Los Alamos," said Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project On Government Oversight ...
Every time I say anything bad about Los Alamos or any other Department of Energy (DOE) lab, I get some warm cuddly biomedical project thrown in my face, as if I don't know the difference between biomedical research and nuclear weapons. "But what about the Human Genome Project?", they whine, or, "What about MEG?" They think I'm a fool who doesn't know that the National Institutes of health (NIH) now runs the HGP through the National Human Genome Research Institute or that MEG is an acronym for magnetoencephalography, a technology that uses SQUIDS (Superconducting QUantum Interference Devices) to record neural activity by non-invasively measuring the magnetic field activity surrounding the brain.
But duh. Democrats aren't fools. They know when they're being played, and they don't like it.
So, just because I'm ornery, irritated, and tired of listening to the marketing crap, I decided to compare the relative efficiencies of a bunch of DOE labs, to real biomedical research labs, which is to say, laboratories unencumbered by nuclear weapons, and funded by a competent, capable branch of the government, the National Institutes of Health.
This is really simple. Measure the money in and the science out. Money in is in units of dollars. Science out is in units of papers published in reputable scientific journals. As simple as it is, I've never seen anyone do it quite this way before.
Estimation of money in
NIH labs. The data for NIH awards to all institutions for FY 2004 is here. The link comes from this page. To reduce the chance of search hits from multiple institutions, I selected a few institutions with unusual names. To improve the chance that NIH funding is the dominant source of money, I also selected institutions whose research portfolios are dominated by biomedical sciences.
DOE labs. The data for DOE funding to the various labs are here. This is the laboratory tables from the DOE FY 2005 budget request. The money delivered to each institution is tabulated beginning on page 5. I used the numbers from FY 2004. As before, I selected labs with unusual names so as to minimize the chance of search hits from multiple institutions. I also selected the labs which make strong claims to be research labs.
Estimation of science out
Using the Institute for Scientific Information's Web of Science (subscription required, I get there through a university library), I simply searched for the name of the institution, limiting the search range to 2004. I recorded the number of papers authored or co-authored by people hailing from that institution in that year. This is a simple, repeatable, and fairly high quality estimation of the scientific output from a given institution.
Here are the results. The "Row" column refers to the row in the source table where you can find the original data.
|Row||Lab||Tax $ in||Papers out||$/paper|
|DOE Civilian Labs|
|DOE Weapons Labs|
|Avg. of L's||808,238|
NIH labs. There is about a factor of three variability in the efficiencies of these institutions. Mayo is the most efficient at about $39,000 per paper, and Salk the least, at about $126,000 per paper. However, the order of magnitude is pretty much the same across all institutions, and the average works out to about $82,000 taxpayer dollars per paper.
DOE labs. I divided the DOE labs into two groups, the civilian labs (Argonne, Brookhaven, and Oak Ridge), and the nuclear weapons labs (Los Alamos, Livermore, and Sandia). The average of the civilian labs is about $400,000 per paper, about 5 times as expensive as an NIH-funded lab.
As for the weapons labs, Sandia is clearly an outlier, so I just threw them out. At almost $1.8 million/paper clearly research is not a big part of their mission. The average for Los Alamos and Livermore is about $800,000 per paper, or about 10 times as expensive as an NIH lab.
As far as the methodology is concerned, you could dicker about the choice of years, the temporal delta between funding and publication, the choice of institution and the choice of literature searching methods, but in fact the numbers don't change very much regardless of what choices you make. You could also dicker about the amount of money spent on weapons vs. science, but there's no way any such dickering can make up for an order of magnitude difference in efficiency.
The cost to the taxpayer of doing research at DOE labs is hugely greater than the cost of doing research at NIH labs. DOE labs are grossly inefficient. There are a bunch of reasons for that, and I won't go into it here, but basically it's because DOE labs want to take your money, and that's all they're about. They lie about their budgets, and how they spend their money. Then they try to wow you with cool technogeek words like nanotechnology and supercomputing. But to them, science is a marketing gimmick, and that's all it is. The bottom line comes from Bob Maffoy, a retired vice president from Sandia National Lab:
I am a strong believer in maintaining a nuclear deterrent, but I would like to have some integrity within the labs and management. They'll do anything for a buck. Link.
As far as biomedical research goes, NIH labs kick the daylights out of DOE labs. The next time some DOE apologist whines in your face about biomedical research, tell them to go jump in the settling pond. It's always better to spend your biomedical research dollars through NIH.