New Mexico’s three research universities all backed losing teams in the competitive bid to run Sandia National Laboratories, but university leaders expect cooperative programs to continue and grow as new management takes over the lab.
The National Nuclear Security Administration awarded the Sandia management contract on Friday to National Technology and Engineering Solutions of Sandia, which includes Honeywell International, Northrop Grumman and the Universities Research Association.
The University of New Mexico, New Mexico State University and New Mexico Tech had backed other contract bidders. UNM had partnered with Battelle, the Boeing Co. and Texas universities, while NMSU and New Mexico Tech joined Lockheed Martin and Purdue University in a separate bid.
Both teams wanted to strengthen joint research and development programs between Sandia and the participating universities.
It’s unclear now how the winning bidders will collaborate with New Mexico’s universities, but the state’s academic leaders say they expect their historical partnerships with Sandia to continue. UNM and NMSU are two of 89 universities that make up the Universities Research Association, and it’s unclear if that will help them strengthen ties with Sandia.
It’s also unclear what will happen with the Technology Ventures Corp., a nonprofit foundation set up by Lockheed Martin to accelerate efforts to take new lab technologies to market. Lockheed Martin pays about 90 percent of TVC’s approximately $2 million annual budget, said TVC President and CEO John Freisinger.
“I expect we’ll need either a different patronage or a different function assigned to us by Lockheed Martin,” Freisinger said. “There’s a danger we could have to shut down some operations at TVC. We just don’t know yet, because this is all new and we have no idea what Honeywell (and Northrop Grumman) offered regarding technology transfer activities, or whether it could include using some local resources for that such as TVC.”
TVC employs 12 people in Albuquerque, providing mentoring, training and assistance in finding funding for startups.
Universities believe their cooperative relations will persist.
“Clearly, we’re disappointed we won’t be leading the lab, but we look forward to working with Honeywell and Northrop Grumman,” said Joe Cecchi, dean of UNM’s School of Engineering and associate provost for national laboratory relations. “We’ve partnered in the past on joint research with both of those companies, and we expect that cooperation to continue when they manage the lab.”
NMSU President Garrey Carruthers said Sandia has a long history of working with New Mexico’s research universities, and it’s unlikely the new management would change that.
“We’ll always be cooperating with Sandia,” Carruthers said. “All three of our universities have worked with Sandia for years, and our students have cooperated on projects. Those are long-term relationships, and to walk away from them would not be good management, I think, for the new lab operators.”
Both NMSU and UNM are members of the Universities Research Association, a group of 89 universities in the U.S. and other countries that collaborate on efforts to build and operate laboratory facilities to promote research and education.
URA’s involvement in the Sandia contract marks its third laboratory management partnership, said association Executive Director Marta Cehelsky. URA also jointly operates the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Illinois and the Pierre Auger Cosmic Ray Observatory in Argentina.
Cehelsky declined to comment on research opportunities for New Mexico universities under the new Sandia management contract.
But as a member of the URA board of trustees and of its strategic planning committee, Carruthers said he will insist on equal opportunities for the state’s universities.
“I did not see the (NTESS) proposal, and I don’t know of any commitments made to other universities because I recused myself given NMSU’s involvement in the bid with Lockheed Martin,” Carruthers said. “But I will make clear that we expect universities in New Mexico to be considered as potential partners as Sandia contract discussions move forward.”
Existing agreements between Sandia and all local and out-of-state universities are expected to be upheld, Cecchi said. That includes strategic alliance agreements that Sandia has signed with UNM and other universities.
Hundreds of students from UNM, NMSU and New Mexico Tech do internships at Sandia every year, and thousands of graduates have been hired as lab employees. The universities also conduct ongoing joint research. New Mexico Tech, for example, manages about $2 million in contracts per year with Sandia for things like explosives and ballistics testing.