Vision in Texas

Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Sunday, July 25, 2004

The UT System's board of regents is engaging in the kind of outside-the-norm vision that universities should be exhibiting by considering pursing a contract to manage the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

The advantages for the university system's scientists and advanced-degree students should be obvious to all -- even state Rep. Lon Burnam, who protests the idea, based on the lab's work in the nuclear field.

Burnam criticized the possibility after UT System Chancellor Mark Yudof raised the issue at the July 16 regents' meeting.

The lab's mission to "develop and apply science and technology to ensure the safety and reliability of the U.S. nuclear deterrent" is apparently anathema to what the state university system should be doing, in Burnam's estimation.

But the Fort Worth legislator, who is the director of the Dallas Peace Center, is ignoring the second prong of the lab's multifaceted mission: "to reduce the threat of weapons of mass destruction, proliferation and terrorism."

The lab's activities are much broader than just nuclear R&D. For example, a University of California scientist working with collaborators from the University of Cambridge and the World Health Organization has come up with a computer modeling method that maps the evolution of the influenza virus. The University of California currently manages the lab.

According to a July 16 news release from the lab -- it's interesting that it came the same day that Burnam was complaining about the lab's work -- this could help medical researchers worldwide develop a better understanding of mutations in influenza and other viruses that allow diseases to dodge the human immune system.

That's just one of many beneficial, non-nuclear projects underway there.

The lab has received unfavorable attention in the past several years because of security lapses; for now, work in classified areas has been halted. Congress ordered that the management contract be placed out for bid.

The University of California, which has been managing the lab since it was established during World War II, is reportedly interested in retaining the contract. Lockheed Martin Corp. also is mulling the possibility.

UT officials are to be commended, not condemned, for their vision.