Politicians will create uninformed, dangerous policies unless scientists are willing to talk truth to power, despite possible risks to their funding
Tuesday, November 14, 2006
Somewhere in the bowels of the Department of Energy lies the answer to a mystery: Why did the U.S. Department of Energy suddenly discontinue its seven-year polygraph-test program for employees at the national nuclear weapons laboratories?
This decision was revealed without fanfare in the Code of Federal Regulations just a few days ago.
The birth of this peculiar policy began with willful ignorance of scientific data – carefully presented by the National Academy of Sciences and 40 senior scientists at Sandia Labs. They unanimously concluded that the polygraph was worse than worthless as a security tool. The vapid political response was thoroughly bipartisan.
From her seat, at the time, on the House Intelligence Committee, Albuquerque’s Republican Rep. Heather Wilson advocated strongly for the polygraph program, joined by her colleague Sen. Richard Shelby, an Alabama Republican, then the ranking member of the sister committee in the Senate. Chiming in simultaneously – hoping to not be seen as weak on security, was then-DOE secretary and now New Mexico’s Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson, who was in the running for the Democratic vice-presidential nomination.
All were complicit in the classical bureaucratic blunder of confusing doing something with doing something useful. But it served their short-sighted purpose of selfishly protecting political power and the multibillion-dollar cash flow to the labs.
Laboratory management shared in the malfeasance, effecting none of the oversight responsibilities it routinely applies in much less consequential matters. Sandia’s president was publicly silent until he was embarrassed into action, when CBS News revealed that polygraphers were going beyond their legal authority by demanding private medical and psychiatric information from lab employees.
Thousands of lab employees had been subjected to feckless questioning from polygraphers. No spies were identified, yet staff morale collapsed and countless lives were ruined by false characterizations of “deception,” as if polygraphers eight weeks of training somehow made them infallible mind readers.
Most of the mislabeled scientists have suffered in silence, yet these outcomes were wholly unsurprising to Sandia researchers, who predicted them all in 1999, – along with Sandia’s squandering of millions of dollars – while warning of unaddressed vulnerabilities of lab computer systems. Those holes remain open even today.
The labs have traditionally provided high-level policy-makers with an unbiased assessment on difficult technical issues – not necessarily the answers officials wanted to hear. So this disheartening history begs an uncomfortable question: Because the scientific evidence of the uselessness – indeed, self-deceptiveness – of polygraphs was squarely on their side, why weren’t scientists at the labs more outspoken? To be so is their raison d’etre, the one thing that distinguishes them from contractors who never question anyone sending money.
It’s different now. I’ve been contacted by dozens of lab staff who bemoan their loss of scientific independence and describe a culture at diametric variance with the Sandia motto of “Exceptional Service in the National Interest.” The culture is one of fear: fear of challenging senior managers who, in turn, fret over any reduction in the unbridled flow of congressional largesse; and the mongering of fear, exemplified by the frenzied attempt, rooted in a once-successful Cold War mentality, to persuade federal planners that yet another generation of thoughtlessly unusable nuclear weapons should be funded.
To be sure, some advances have come out of the labs. Promising research has been done to advance nuclear reactor safety which, though years away, will mitigate the energy insecurities that are the source of many troubles now facing us.
But at budgets of $2.5 billion per year per lab, are these adequate returns, when universities might do the same at much less cost? No one has openly voiced this question in Washington, but it is much on the minds of lawmakers as deficits balloon and homegrown technology meets new international competition.
Soon enough the labs will be scrutinized, and the result may not be pretty. It may be true that scientists finally prevailed in persuading DOE to end its damaging polygraph program, in spite of the dangers of speaking truth to power. But I suspect the course change has other origins.
Laboratory employees will have to speak firmly and loudly on the basis of scientific integrity, or they will be relegated to the caste of Beltway bandits.
That can’t be good for the labs, New Mexico or the nation.