Change in Argonne National Laboratory: A Case Study

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Science  01 Oct 1971:
Vol. 174, Issue 4004, pp. 30-38
DOI: 10.1126/science.174.4004.30


Despite traditional opposition to change within an institution and the known reluctance of an "old guard" to accept new managerial policies and techniques, the reactions suggested in this study go well beyond the level of a basic resistance to change. The response, indeed, drawn from a random sampling of Laboratory scientific and engineering personnel, comes close to what Philip Handler has recently described as a run on the scientific bank in a period of depression (1, p. 146). It appears that Argonne's apprehension stems less from the financial cuts that have reduced staff and diminished programs by an annual 10 percent across the last 3 fiscal years than from the administrative and conceptual changes that have stamped the institution since 1966. Administratively, the advent of the AUA has not forged a sense of collaborative effort implicit in the founding negotiations or contributed noticeably to increasing standards of excellence at Argonne. The AUA has, in fact, yet to exercise the constructive powers vested in them by the contract of reviewing and formulating long-term policy on the research and reactor side. Additionally, the University of Chicago, once the single operator, appears to have forfeited some of the trust and understanding that characterized the Laboratory's attitude to it in former years. In a period of complex and sensitive management the present directorate at Argonne is seriously dissociated from a responsible spectrum of opinion within the Laboratory.

The crux of discontent among the creative scientific and engineering community appears to lie in a developed sense of being overadministered. In contrast to earlier periods, Argonne's professional staff feels a critical need for a voice in the formulation of Laboratory programs and policy. The Argonne senate could supply this mechanism. Slow to rally, their present concern springs from a firm conviction that the Laboratory is "withering on the vine." By contrast, the Laboratory director Powers, William B. Cannon, who is vice president of programs and projects of the University of Chicago, and a small selection of staff members believe that the Laboratory is going through a natural and inevitable process of change consonant with altered missions and objectives in an atomic energy laboratory. The general mood, however, demonstrates the Jeffersonian insight, as relevant in science as in politics, that only democratic governance provides salutary checks and balances when things go wrong. The point deserves close scrutiny when Argonne's tripartite contract comes up for renegotiation in October 1971.

Fundamentally Argonne's relations with its sponsoring agency remain at the center of its progress and future plans. Despite administrative and management changes, there is little doubt that he who pays the piper calls the tune. In common with other federal contract research and development adjuncts, Argonne has undoubtedly undergone tightening and winnowing away of flexibility in the past 6 years. In the nuclear reactor program the consequences have been strongly felt, and stringent national budgets have widened the tendency in the research domain. The impact of these changes and of AEC's attitude to basic research raise large questions for the future of the national laboratories. Few doubt that these "major national assets," with their outstanding scientific and technical personnel and equipment, fulfill a unique function and are here to stay, though their missions may undergo some change; the question of their most effective direction and handling, however, remains crucial for those concerned with priorities and decision-making for science.

A recent review of 40 national federal adjuncts (30,31) has indicated that the primary sponsoring agency obtains better performance from a center that has a relatively high degree of independence than from one that is tightly controlled. The point is confirmed at Argonne where the present tendency (particularly on the nuclear reactor front) to use creative scientists as skilled technicians performing tasks specified in detail from Washington threatens to deprive the nation of the benefit of their scientific creativity and of their objective review and evaluation of AEC's programs. "The case for independence," Alan Pifer, president of Carnegie Corporation, has summed up the matter cogently, "rests on the simple proposition that for government to reap the real benefits that these organizations offer, they must be genuinely independent. If they are anything less than this, their effectiveness will be compromised. Among the benefits, as we have seen, can be a special capacity for experimentation, objectivity, the ability to recruit specially trained or talented personnel, flexibility, economy, and efficiency. Each of these benefits is a direct function of the quality of the management of these organizations, and this in turn is a function of the degree of independence which management is accorded. In short, able men know that freedom of action is essential to their own highest performance, and they will demand it. Having won it, they will resist all attempts at government to erode it" (30).