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On Nukes, Labs And Budgets

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Faced with wavering financial support for its nuclear weapons research and development mission, the agency that oversees New Mexico’s nuclear weapons labs has its eye on non-nuclear weapons work for the Pentagon and other federal agencies to help bolster the labs’ budgets.

“New missions” and, by implication, new funding sources, are all the rage.

Meanwhile, backers of NASA’s planetary science program are planning a car wash and bake sale.

For links to DeYoung’s memo and the planetary bake sale and car wash,  click here on

That dichotomy clashed in my inbox last week after the Project on Government Oversight, a Washington, D.C., watchdog group, shared a devastating internal Pentagon memo questioning why the nuclear weapons labs should feel entitled to keep getting fat budgets while the rest of the federal research enterprise shrinks.

Meanwhile, Reta Beebe, a New Mexico State University scientist who is one of the world’s leading experts on the atmosphere of the planet Jupiter, sent me a note about plans for a June 9 planetary car wash and bake sale.

Obviously the car wash and bake sale is a publicity stunt aimed at drawing attention to the proposed 20 percent cut in the nation’s planetary science budget – from $1.5 billion this year to $1.2 billion next year.

But the labs’ grasping for outside money is very real and POGO’s leaked memo suggests some inside the Pentagon are none too pleased.

At a time when the Pentagon’s own labs are shrinking, the nuclear weapons labs, run by the U.S. Department of Energy, are asking for financial help to keep from doing the same. That’s despite the fact the weapons labs are far more expensive per scientist than comparable research groups elsewhere, wrote Don DeYoung, a member of a Pentagon team assembled to look at the labs’ research budgets. DeYoung, a civilian, was the Navy’s representative on an inter-agency team reviewing lab management and funding issues.

DeYoung, in a November memo, called the labs “an oversized post-Cold War nuclear weapons infrastructure” that federal managers have failed to reduce in size as the need for their work declined.

We are seeing a pattern as the consensus about cutting federal spending grows more concrete. The people who get money now want to keep getting it, and are marshaling their arguments as to why.

I must disclose here a personal soft spot for planetary science. I began my science journalism career covering NASA planetary missions for a newspaper in California, spectator to the grand dramas of robotic spacecraft arriving at unexplored worlds. My first was Voyager’s arrival at Neptune, and one of my great life thrills remains looking over Beebe’s shoulder in the spring of 1989 at some of the first close-up pictures of that planet that humans had ever seen.

At an emotional level, that means I would be enthusiastic about having Beebe and her colleagues wash my car.

But the hard-hearted, federal budget-policy journalist in me recognizes that, like everything the federal government does, planetary science faces tough realities in this new fiscal environment.

The contradiction here is that the new Pentagon memo suggests the labs and their nuclear weapons program sponsors think they should be exempt from this new reality. So important is the labs’ work, the Department of Energy has argued, that other federal agencies, especially the Pentagon, should help pick up the tab to keep them from having to shrink and helping them expand into new mission areas.

DeYoung argues that, with a bloated cost structure one study suggests makes a weapons lab scientist cost two to three times as much as a comparable researcher elsewhere, pouring more money into them from other agencies for new missions makes no sense.

I sent Bob Peurifoy, a retired Sandia National Laboratories manager who has long complained about bloat at the labs, a copy of DeYoung’s memo over the weekend. Peurifoy, a gruff old-timer from the generation that built nuclear weapons to help win the Cold War, has long complained about the new way of business at the labs, arguing that scrambling for money rather than maintaining the U.S. nuclear arsenal has become the real core mission.

Peurifoy reminded me of a comment he made last year when we were having a similar conversation: “The managers of the weapon program now seem to believe their mission is to increase the weapon program budget and protect payroll.”

DeYoung’s memo suggests Peurifoy’s argument, common among many of the old-timers I talk to, has some quiet allies within the defense establishment. This subtext will make the coming debates over the nuclear weapons budget fascinating to watch.

Meanwhile, if you’re reading this, Reta, count me in for a dozen cookies, and my Honda Civic really needs a wash.

UpFront is a daily front-page opinion column. Comment directly to John Fleck at 823-3916 or