September 14, 2006

Argonne to remain in University’s control

The University secured a five-year Department of Energy (DOE) contract to retain control of Argonne National Laboratory, the prominent scientific center southwest of the city that it has managed since 1946.

Argonne is home to some of the nation’s leading nuclear, alternative fuel, and particle physics research programs. The University considered keeping the lab a top priority and spent millions on the bid.

Under the contract, effective this October, the Department of Energy will funnel around $500 million a year to Argonne to fund scientific projects, maintain the lab, and pay the salaries of 2,900 employees. The University will see a direct income of just under $6 million a year in management fees, in addition to research access that running the lab provides.

“We are very pleased to lead this strong team in managing Argonne for the Department of Energy,” said Robert Zimmer, president of the University, in a press release. “Argonne’s unique facilities and scientific and engineering expertise are vital resources for the development of science and technology and enhancing the energy, economic and national security of the nation.”

The contract has been a major concern for University officials because running a national laboratory garners significant academic prestige as well as shared resources and faculty between the U of C and the laboratory. More than 100 of the positions at the lab are joint appointments at the University, and countless cross-discipline research projects use information gathered at Argonne.

“Together, the University and Argonne are able to compete on the world stage across a far broader spectrum of disciplines than either could alone,” said Thomas Rosenbaum, vice president for research at the University and Argonne, in an e-mail interview. “The combination of people and facilities creates a more vibrant intellectual atmosphere and helps us to recruit and retain higher quality faculty and students.”

The University feared that an outside group, like private sector defense contractors Lockheed Martin and Bechtel, or nonprofit development company Battelle, would wrestle away control of the lab. In response, the University enlisted the support of Northwestern University and the University of Illinois, the state’s only other major research universities, under the moniker UChicago Argonne LLC.

Additionally, BTX Technologies Incorporated, a nuclear manufacturing company, and Jacobs Engineering Group Incorporated, specialists in project management and safety, were brought into UChicago Argonne LLC to strengthen the proposal. The University lost control of Argonne-West, an affiliated national laboratory in Idaho, to Battelle last year.

“UChicago Argonne LLC is designed to combine the finest scientific leadership with best practice management methods in order to support innovation and discovery at Argonne that serves the national interest,” Rosenbaum said.

Under the agreement, Argonne’s Board of Governors will consist of 21 scientific and technological leaders in addition to the presidents of the U of C, Northwestern, and the University of Illinois. Additionally, the vice presidents for research at the U of C, Northwestern, and Illinois Urbana-Champaign will join the director and chief scientist at Argonne on the Board’s Science Policy Council. The universities have pledged a combined $15.5 million in financial support for the lab.

“The partners on the commercial side, Jacobs Engineering and BWX Technologies, and on the academic side, Northwestern University and the two campuses of the University of Illinois, are a key element of strengthening the management of the Lab,” said Robert Rosner, Argonne’s director, by e-mail.

“Our intention is that the commercial partners focus mostly on bringing best practices from industry to the operations of the Lab, and the partner universities bring both their basic science and especially their nationally ranked applied sciences and engineering programs to the table.”

Among the greatest concerns for the University entering the bidding process was reestablishing itself as a distinguished manager of both efficiency and safety.

Argonne was reprimanded in March for nuclear safety violations dating back to 1999, including inadequate record keeping and insufficient safety precautions for radioactive material. Although none of the violations was found to have resulted in injury, the lab faced potential fines of over half a million dollars, though the DOE later dismissed the penalties. The incident undoubtedly marred the reputation of a lab that the Universities Research Association (URA) cited as “distinguished” in February.

The Department of Energy, making a renewed push for increased security at nuclear facilities on the heels of well publicized security lapses at Los Alamos National Laboratory, has tied the University’s continued control of Argonne to specific performance goals.

The initial five-year span of the contract can be extended in phases up to 20 years if specific targets are met. If the management falls short, however, the University risks losing control of the lab or seeing its $6 million annual compensation slashed.

Having secured Argonne for the foreseeable future, the University has now set its sights squarely on the bid to manage Fermi National Accelerator Lab. The U of C was invited by the URA in February to co-manage the laboratory, and researchers have been excited about the potential for collaboration among the labs that house two of the world’s state-of-the-art particle accelerators. The URA’s current contract lapses at the end of this calendar year.

“The work in high energy physics and particle astrophysics at Fermilab is of acute interest to our faculty, and there are potentially great synergies between Fermilab and Argonne,” Rosenbaum said.