Nukes, Documents and FFRDCs

The elements of the story were irresistable. A top secret nuclear weapons lab. A drug investigation. And classified documents discovered in a trailer, after police responded to a domestic disturbance.

It was all there in articles last week about a security breach at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

On Friday, the U.S. Department of Energy recommended a record $3 million fine against the University of California, the contractor that ran the place. The energy department's National Nuclear Security Administration found the university's security procedures were riddled with gaps. ran a story that said the proposed fine followed the discovery of more than 1,000 pages of classified documents and "several computer storage devices in a trailer" occupied by an employee of a subcontractor who once worked as an archivist at the lab.

Apart from the too-strange-to-be-true details of the discovery, I'm interested because some of the government's most important laboratories are run by academic contractors and entities known as Federally Funded Research and Development Centers.

These entities have been doing enormous amounts of work over the years. They get paid a lot of money. A rough tally by Eagle Eye Publishers said that more than three dozen of the FFRDCs received about $14 billion in contracts.

The security breach -- billed by officials at Los Alamos as troubling, but under control -- made me wonder: What exactly are FFRDCs and universities doing? Why do FFRDCs exist? Are taxpayers getting what they pay for? How can we know?

I'll be trying to answer those questions along the way. If anyone wants to offer help, please drop me at note at

By Robert O'Harrow |  July 17, 2007; 6:13 AM ET ffrdc
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See for a "Master List" of all FFRDCs compiled by NSF every so often.
FFRDCs grew mainly out of scientific, engineering, and certain social science needs in WWII and the cold war. They are all not-for profit, and not supposed to compete with "industry." However there are occasional skirmishes along that fault line. The websites for most of them tell you a lot about what they do. As to whether taxpayers are getting what they pay for, it's the same question we should keep on asking of (1) government agencies and (2) profit-making firms. It may actually be more answerable in the case of the FFRDCs, because they more readily disclose what they do and for whom. But they are not used to a lot of scrutiny.

They are well insulated from perceived or real conflicts of interest, compared with for-profit firms. And, they do not have to compete for almost all their work. Also, there is a lot of classified and some acq-sensitive work. One last point, their cost per staff year is much higher than for-profit firms, even if you adjust for the labs and other facilities loaded into the overhead rates of some. BTW, $14 B sounds high, even if you account for the heavy infrastructure of the DOE bomb complex--but no one's got a high-confidence figure.

Posted by: Michael Lent | July 17, 2007 6:56 AM

The law covering FFRDCs is found in U.S Code of Federal Regulations on Federal Acquisition Regulations System - Title 48, Part 35, Section 35.017 Federally Funded Research and Development Centers. Here's some of the legal requirements from 35.017....

(2) An FFRDC meets some special long-term research or development need which cannot be met as effectively by existing in-house or contractor resources. FFRDC's enable agencies to use private sector resources to accomplish tasks that are integral to the mission and operation of the sponsoring agency. An FFRDC, in order to discharge its responsibilities to the sponsoring agency, has access, beyond that which is common to the normal contractual relationship, to Government and supplier data, including sensitive and proprietary data, and to employees and installations equipment and real property. The FFRDC is required to conduct its business in a manner befitting its special relationship with the Government, to operate in the public interest with objectivity and independence, to be free from organizational conflicts of interest, and to have full disclosure of its affairs to the sponsoring agency. It is not the Government's intent that an FFRDC use its privileged information or access to installations equipment and real property to compete with the private sector. However, an FFRDC may perform work for other than the sponsoring agency under the Economy Act, or other applicable legislation, when the work is not otherwise available from the private sector.

(3) FFRDC's are operated, managed, and/or administered by either a university or consortium of universities, other not-for-profit or nonprofit organization, or an industrial firm, as an autonomous organization or as an identifiable separate operating unit of a parent organization.

(4) Long-term relationships between the Government and FFRDC's are encouraged in order to provide the continuity that will attract high-quality personnel to the FFRDC. This relationship should be of a type to encourage the FFRDC to maintain currency in its field(s) of expertise, maintain its objectivity and independence, preserve its familiarity with the needs of its sponsor(s), and provide a quick response capability.

In addition to the DOE FFRDCs, DOD's Lincoln Laboratory (run by MIT) and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (run by CalTech) are well known FFRDCs.

One of the key attributes of an FFRDC should be "academic/intellectual freedom" from the wishes/policies of the government. For example, a FFRDC like Lawrence Livermore Lab is able to do research showing the negative impacts of Global Warming, even though the current administration and Secretary of Energy do not believe in it. The scientists/researchers are insolated from undue governmental pressures on their work. The government doesn't have to fund their work, but once it does, it does not have the legal right to control the outcome. The FFRDC's scientists/researchers/staff work directly for the FFRDC and not the government, so the government cannot fire them for their views or give them orders to alter their research findings.

Posted by: John R | July 17, 2007 3:47 PM

Regarding the questions: Are taxpayers getting what they pay for? How can we know?

Rand's RaDiUS database at is a attempt to compile federally funded R&D, much of which is performed by FFRDC's. You have to get an account, but then can search by institution and project.

Posted by: David | July 23, 2007 5:02 PM

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