New York, N.Y. — Katie Hafner reports that throughout the high-tech era, government research laboratories have been seedbeds for some of the most important advances in computing, detecting nuclear weapons, robotics, gene sequencing and other fields. And for engineers and computer scientists, the laboratories have been havens of job permanence.
Now, the technology boom in Silicon Valley and across the nation has changed all that. The lure of the private sector and its many start-up companies is so strong that national research laboratories are losing their best and brightest in growing numbers.
Senior scientists making $90,000 at a government laboratory can go to private companies and increase their salaries by 50 percent. Add a lucrative stock-option package and the appeal can be irresistible.
Financial rewards are not the only motivation. At the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, the case of Wen Ho Lee, the scientist who admitted mishandling nuclear secrets, has also had an effect.
“I used to wake up and think I had the best job in the world,” said Pete Beckman, a 36-year-old computer scientist who spent nearly four years at Los Alamos before leaving in April. “It was so much fun, and I was working with absolutely the smartest people in the world. I didn’t mind making 30 percent less than if I were at a private company. But you can only put up with so much.”
He took a job in the Santa Fe, N.M., area with TurboLinux, a software company, for a salary that he said was much higher than the $100,000 he made at Los Alamos, and stock options. Four others from Los Alamos left at the same time to join him.
Many administrators fear such departures could erode the quality of government-sponsored technical and scientific research over the next several years, including some work affecting national security.
“If the attrition continues to escalate, at some point you get behind the power curve, no matter what you do,” said David Pehrson, deputy associate director of engineering at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, Calif. “You ultimately weaken the ability of the lab to do the things we’re asked to do. It’s a slow, creeping kind of thing.”
Over all, the annual attrition rate at leading research centers like Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore and Sandia National Laboratories, which has headquarters in Albuquerque, traditionally around 4 percent, has recently been in double-digit percentages, especially in the growing fields of advanced computation (the application of sophisticated hardware and software to complex problems) and biotechnology, in which expertise is in high demand. That is still less than the turnover in private industry, typically close to 25 percent, but that is of little comfort to the government.
“We’ve had management consultants who’ve come in and said, `Your turnover is too low; it’s unhealthy,’ ” said Mim John, vice president of Sandia’s California division in Livermore. “Now we can say, `It’s healthy, thank you, and I don’t like it.’ ”
The rate of attrition among scientists in the computing division at Los Alamos has more than doubled in two years. Hardest hit is Advanced Computing Laboratory, where 14 of 34 full-time employees, or 41 percent, have left in the last year or are preparing to leave. In some of Sandia’s computing groups, the attrition rate has risen to 11 percent, and in some parts of Lawrence Livermore it is 12 percent.
The departures have not only caused the usual disruptions that occur when employees leave, but have also affected work related to national security. Dr. Beckman and his colleagues had been working on advanced software for simulating the testing of nuclear weapons.
Similarly, six scientists at Sandia in California, who had invented a technology for hand-held sensors to detect chemical and biological agents, left earlier this year to start a new company, called Eksigent, based on their invention.
Even departures of scientists not involved in research related to weapons can have an indirect effect on security-related research, and that also causes concern. Robert Dye, 39, a Los Alamos materials scientist who worked on the reduction of global warming, left the laboratory last month to join Technanogy, a company in Newport Beach, Calif., involved in the growing field of nanotechnology, which produces molecular- scale devices.
“I’m not a direct weapons guy, but I’m in strategic support,” said Dr. Dye, who was at Los Alamos for 11 years. “There’s a bunch of weapons people who know they can come consult with me. It’s an entangled web, and you’re ripping out these entangled webs when people leave.”
Dave Rakestraw, 39, who had been at Sandia for 12 years and is one of the co-founders of Eksigent, said the prosecution of Wen Ho Lee had an effect at Sandia and other labs. But Dr. Rakestraw pointed to a more general decline in the attractiveness of working at Sandia.
“The environment in the lab is not as desirable as it used to be,” he said. “In olden days, very large sums of money were poured into national labs, which gave really smart scientists an environment where they could be the best they could be. Now competition for resources has been much more a part of everyone’s lives.”
Dr. Rakestraw also said, “There’s always the lure of winning the lottery by joining some start-up, and you get much richer than you ever imagined.”
In Northern California, the gradual spread of Silicon Valley into less congested cities has compounded the situation. Livermore, 40 miles southeast of San Francisco, used to be considered the far outskirts of Silicon Valley. In the last year or so, a number of high-tech companies have arrived in the area; housing prices have soared; and technical talent of all stripes is highly prized.
And the problem is not confined to national security laboratories. NASA Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif., in the heart of Silicon Valley, has been particularly vulnerable to recruitment from the computer industry.
In recent years, NASA Ames has lost several high-level engineers who have gone to work for a variety of start-ups and become millionaires.
In competing for talent, the laboratories are constrained by budgets determined by Congress and administered by the Department of Energy. Matching a salary offer from a private company can take weeks or months. Before leaving Sandia, Dr. Rakestraw said, he tried to recruit a scientist from an outside company into a management position, but after two months of negotiations, the laboratory could not come up with the $135,000 the scientist wanted.
But the laboratories are trying to find ways to fight back, taking measures to keep people from leaving and make themselves more appealing to recruits. Sandia, Lawrence Livermore and NASA Ames now offer signing bonuses, and Los Alamos is likely to do so. Sandia’s California division is also considering housing assistance.
Scientists like Dr. Rakestraw and Dr. Beckman said they were torn about leaving their government work, partly because of the sense of civic duty they felt as laboratory employees. “A lot of us felt a lot of pride working at the lab, focused on protecting the country and developing the next generation of technology,” Dr. Beckman said. “There’s a lot of patriotism that goes with that.”
That sense of loyalty has prompted some to seek ways to keep a foot in both worlds, perhaps by continuing to consult part time. Ronald Reisman, 46, an engineer at NASA Ames, has been working for 12 years on improving the nation’s ailing air- traffic-control system.
But as a government employee, Mr. Reisman was making far less than he could at a private company. He was so dedicated to his work that when he finally agreed to take a high- paying job at an e-commerce software company recently, after months of soul-searching, he insisted on being allowed to continue to work at NASA part time until he finished his project.
“I’ve been a civil servant for a dozen years and I’m not going to throw it away for a few shekels,” Mr. Reisman said. “There’s honor involved.”