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Thanks to this diary, we learned about classified documents from Los Alamos turning up in a drug raid, and once again, we're treated to the spectacle of treasonous negligence by our nation's leading nuclear weapons lab, those coddled incompetents from Los Alamos. We should shut them down.

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
NIH labs
1 Johns Hopkins 599,151,309 7048 85,010
37 Mayo Clinic 166,760,466 4302 38,763
26 Emory 213,455,284 3277 65,137
19 Vanderbilt 251,147,207 3077 81,620
25 Scripps 222,580,188 1976 112,641
65 Sloan Kettering 90,428,774 1391 65,009
100 Salk Inst. 50,160,704 397 126,349
Average 82,075
DOE Civilian Labs
4 Argonne 325,457,000 1161 280,324
15 Brookhaven 366,525,000 935 392,005
79 Oak Ridge 704,339,000 1371 513,741
Average   395,356
DOE Weapons Labs
55 Los Alamos 1,664,221,000 2011 827,558
50 Livermore 1,130,520,000 1433 788,918
109 Sandia 1,541,394,000 861 1,790,236
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.

Originally posted to Positronicus on Sat Oct 28, 2006 at 10:10 PM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Wonky enough for you? (5+ / 0-)

    I have worked at both NIH labs and DOE labs in the past. I do not work for either agency now.

    This diary grew out of an exchange in the comments section of another diary, wherein I made the following claim:

    Any one of the top 30 NIH funded biomedical research hospitals produces more science for less money than Los Alamos. By a lot.

    Another commenter, a Los Alamos apologist, replied,

    That is an extraordinary some evidence to support it?

    The ISI Web of Science was down that night, so I couldn’t get the evidence just then. Here it is now.

    •  You couldn't pay me enough... (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      fritzrth, Positronicus

      ... to work in a DOE lab again.

      Where I worked, the safety standards were almost non-existent.  I know for a fact that this was the exception rather than the rule for DOE labs, but that doesn't make it ok.

      I have some health problems now that are a likely result of working there.

      Interesting diary, btw, even if the wording is a little, um, abrasive ;-)

      They can be counted on to tell us who our enemies are / But they're never the ones to fight or to die... -- Jackson Browne

      by Page van der Linden on Sun Oct 29, 2006 at 03:21:43 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Hunter made me do it (0+ / 0-)

        I took out all the four-letter words and replaced them with nine-letter words!

        I share your attitude, hope it's obvious. They couldn't pay me enough to go back ... I also have some health problems that probably but not provably came from working in a DOE lab.

        I didn't really intend to write about DOE and the labs when I joined this site, but every so often someone slings some bullshit at me & it pisses me off, you know? Thanks for reading.

  •  DoE v. USGS (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    JVolvo, Positronicus

    or faux Geology & Hydrology v. real science.

    A geologist friend referred to the site analysis for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) fabricated by the DoE as scientistic.

    Years ago, when the DoE was looking for a place to build a pilot plan to demonstrate that they could isolate plutonium contaminated nuclear weapons waste from the accessible environment a few locations were considered.  A location in southern New Mexico was studied by the United States Geological Survey (USGS).  USGS geologists and hydrologists quickly determined that the site was not suitable for the disposal of any toxic material - let alone plutonium contaminated nuclear weapons waste, because the proposed site was located in one of the largest if not the largest area of karst in the US. The underground terrain is like swiss cheese - it's filled with caverns and caves, underground rivers and solution channels.  A place where one might reasonably expect rapid transport of waste to the accessible environment instead of isolation from the accessible environment.

    Jimmy Carter shut the project down, but it was resurrected under Reagan.  The second time around DoE decided to bury the USGS site analysis and spend millions of dollars on computer modeling and laboratory tests.  They fabricated a very expensive site analysis - pure fiction. They refused to conduct actual field tests like injecting dye in a well upstream to see how long it would take the dye to reach a well downstream - oh no - they couldn't do that - that might give them some real data which would show that the site and their studies were full of holes.

    The WIPP is located near the Carlsbad National Caverns.  There is a highly pressurized brine reservoir below the WIPP and an aquifer above it which is periodically flushed into the Pecos River.  There is exploration for natural gas all around the site - each new puncture into the earth creating yet another pathway for likely transport to the accessible environment.  In time the barrels of waste placed in the salt bed below the surface will erode - the plutonium waste, metal barrels and brine will form a highly pressurized radioactive slurry.

    The WIPP opened in 1999 and DoE plans to continue to truck plutonium contaminated nuclear weapons waste to the facility until 2034.  Thousands of truckloads of this lethal material being funneled into Southern New Mexico for the next 28 years - 70% of the capacity of the WIPP is reserved for future waste generated though the ongoing production of nuclear weapons.




    •  In the diary I didn't mention quality (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      peace voter

      but in fact, a lot of the science done in DOE labs is pretty bad.

      One way to get at that issue objectively and quantitatively at an institutional scale would be to look at the average impact factor of journals where articles from that institution are published.

      The Impact factor, very often abbreviated IF, is a measure of the citations to science and social science journals. It is frequently used as a proxy for the importance of a journal to its field.

      I suspect that if you calculated the average impact factors from NIH labs and DOE labs, the NIH labs would be significantly higher.

      However, doing that tally would involve a lot of manual labor. I don't have time to do it myself, so it's only a suspicion, not a claim.

  •  Poorly managed because of UC (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    peace voter, Positronicus

    The Los Alamos lab has problems because it is managed by the University of California.  UC manages three labs and it's not surprising that a university system that is so misnagaed in the first place cannot manage other organizational entities.

    California wastes a tremendous amount of money because there is no accountability for the UC system. For example, UC was required to report faculty workload at least two years ago to show improvement, but the last time I checked they still had not done so.  In fact, they're more interested in preparing some smoke and mirrors report on faculty workload instead of preparing data in the same format they did for the state the first time around.

    OK, I'll stop there:-)

    LA is for Lower Alabama. Also known as the Florida Panhandle for any Yankees not in the know.

    by Thom K in LA on Sun Oct 29, 2006 at 05:02:29 AM PST

    •  There's plenty of blame to go around (0+ / 0-)

      M&O contractors, lab managers, DOE, and even Congress. Maybe even especially Congress. Both DOE and the Army Corps of Engineers are funded through the pork-riddled Energy & Water Development Appropriations Bill. Both agencies are driven by politics & greed. Both are full of dangerous incompetents. Neither do a good job.

      There's an army of them, and they're everywhere. That's why the system is so difficult to reform.

      My expectation regarding the new M&O contractor at Los Alamos is that nothing will change. UC might have been doing a poor job, but their replacements will as well: The problems at Los Alamos were at Los Alamos. But DOE fired the people in California. WTF? How is that supposed to improve anything?

  •  Apples vs. apples or apples vs. oranges? (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Interesting question you pose, and interesting analysis, but is the difference in cost per paper possibly due to different subjects being studied, and different approaches to publishing? Does the DOE tend to do less biomedical research (perhaps more physics) and therefore have higher operating costs? Is it possible that a substantial fraction of the DOE's research cannot be published? Is it possible that the sorts of things the DOE researches is of less general interest, highly specialized, and therefore less likely to be cited by others?

    I think that perhaps a fairer comparison would have been between academic labs funded by the NIH and those funded by the DOE but not at DOE labs, such as the plant research lab at Michigan State. (This was the second reference that arose from a Pubmed search with "department of energy[affl]".)

    As for the NIH now running the Human Genome Project, that's true, but you forgot to mention that the project was conceived by the DOE and that the NIH refused to get involved until the DOE threatened to find another partner, which would have left the NIH rightly embarrassed at missing out on such an opportunity.

    some warm cuddly biomedical project

    One could easily infer that you consider this project to be a "warm cuddly biomedical project". If so, it would be interesting to see you analysis redone without the thousands upon thousands of NIH-funded but HGP-based publications.

    BUSH: What did Iraq have to do with what? QUESTION: The attacks upon the World Trade Center. BUSH: Nothing! Except for...

    by DrReason on Sun Oct 29, 2006 at 06:18:10 AM PST

    •  A couple of points (0+ / 0-)

      Interesting question you pose, and interesting analysis, but is the difference in cost per paper possibly due to different subjects being studied ...

      The difference in cost per paper is primarily due to overheads. DOE labs have a huge number of non-performers on staff. These are people who were hired primarily for political reasons and don't contribute anything to the mission. In the case of the weapons labs it's because I rolled weapons money in with science money and that's not really the right thing to do. I suspect their science budget is really about 1/3 of the overall budget, which would bring thier performance in line with the civilian labs (only 500% more expensive than NIH labs).

      I think that perhaps a fairer comparison would have been between academic labs funded by the NIH and those funded by the DOE but not at DOE labs ...

      No, absolutely not. While there is an issue with DOE and academic pork, it is on a vastly smaller scale. Universities are not a problem, the DOE labs are. Moving all unclassified research out of the DOE labs and into universities would improve the performance and quality of the results tremendously.

      it would be interesting to see you analysis redone without the thousands upon thousands of NIH-funded but HGP-based publications.

      The results would be essentially the same. You'd take out a fraction of the science being done at each of the selected institutions and a fraction of the money. The cost per paper would change by a perhaps a little bit, but not by 500%.

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