Possible UT bid for lab contract opposed

By Patrick Mcgee
Star-Telegram Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 10, 2004

State Rep. Lon Burnam, far right, says that UT System regents should be put on trial for considering a management contract for a lab that makes weapons of mass destruction.

State Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, voices his opposition to a possible UT System bid for the Los Alamos lab contract during a meeting of students and peace activists Monday.

ARLINGTON - About 30 students and peace activists gathered Monday at the University of Texas at Arlington to criticize the UT System's steps toward bidding on a nuclear lab's management contract.

The protesters are becoming increasingly active and communicate through e-mail and Web sites, but the trend toward greater university involvement in government labs and defense research may have out-paced their organizational efforts.

Department of Defense research at educational institutions has nearly tripled in just two years to $1.1 billion.

Texas universities have aggressively pursued some of those dollars:

• The UT System and the Texas A&M University System have expressed interest in bidding on the management contract for Los Alamos National Laboratory. The New Mexico-based nuclear lab is currently managed by the University of California.

• Texas A&M has partnered with three major corporations to pursue the management contract of Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory, where nuclear research is done.

• Last year, UT Medical Branch-Galveston received $158 million from the federal government to build biodefense labs and programs.

• In 2002 Texas A&M founded the Integrative Center for Homeland Security on its campus and hired a retired Air Force general to lead it.

• In March, the three UT campuses in North Texas signed a memorandum of understanding with Sandia National Laboratories to spur research collaboration.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, presided over the Sandia signing. During an interview last week, she said Texas universities are right to get more involved in defense research.

"It enhances both the students and faculty research experience," Hutchison said during her visit Wednesday to UT-Arlington. "People want to come where the action is, where the newest research is being done, and these government labs are state-of-the-art."

The anti-Los Alamos lab activists who gathered Monday at UT-Arlington couldn't disagree more.

"It doesn't belong in the academic arena," Shauna Fleet said of the lab. The 23-year-old senior, who is majoring in interdisciplinary studies, is a member of the Student Peace Action Network. She said the group has about a dozen members.

State Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, led the meeting and said that he thinks UT System regents should be put on trial for breaking international law for considering making a bid on the management contract of a lab that makes weapons of mass destruction.

The regents, who are searching for a partner in the bid, have not yet committed the system to going after the contract.

System Chancellor Mark Yudof has said the lab is "not a bomb-making factory" and stressed that other important scientific work is done there.

Experts say the lure of federal research funding and advanced science makes government labs and defense research attractive to universities with great ambitions for their science and engineering programs.

John Pike, director of globalsecurity.org, a think tank in Virginia, said universities have been involved in military research for decades, especially the University of California and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The University of California has managed Los Alamos since it was founded in 1943 to invent the first atomic bomb, and MIT has made numerous breakthroughs for the military such as the development of radar and of the Internet.

Jacques Gansler, University of Maryland vice president for research and former undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, said he believes the Defense Department is investing more in university research because science is nearing breakthroughs in information technology, biotechnology and nanotechnology.

He said public universities are showing greater interest in any federally funded research as state aid decreases and research becomes one of the most important measures of excellence.

ONLINE: www.utwatch.org