Los Alamos Laboratory Past and Future
The Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) has a rich history of more than 75 years of research and science. Many current and historical facts can be found on their website, lanl.gov. The laboratory, which was called “site Y” of the Manhattan Project, was created in 1943. The Manhattan Project is famous because that was the code name given to the development of the atomic bomb during World War II. Rotter writes that the Project began as a race against the Germans. Because if the Germans built an atomic bomb first, the world would be destroyed.
The Project was led by General Leslie R. Groves and J. Robert Oppenheimer, and together, they and their team managed to create the world’s first atomic bomb in only 27 months. The first test took place on July 16, 1945, and the bomb was test detonate at Trinity Site on the Alamogordo Bombing Range.
Ultimately, two atomic bombs were dropped in World War II. One in Hiroshima, and the other in Nagasaki. The actions were ethically muddled, but the war did end just days after the second bombing. Oppenheimer would ultimately be against the use of strategic nuclear bombing and the construction of the future hydrogen bomb. Although because he was a chairman of the General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission, he was unable to speak out publicly. He eventually had his security clearance revoked among fears of McCarthyism, the communist threat. (Schweber, 2000)
The laboratories important work continues to this day. Their primary goal remains assuring the safety and reliability of the country’s nuclear deterrence. In addition to that goal, they also work on modern and future issues.
Because they are a government funded lab, they have a focus on security. They work on border security, and energy security, as well as nuclear and biological countermeasures. Additionally, they work on high-energy physics, materials science, superconductivity, and quantum computing, to name a few.
Government sponsored scientific research can be very effective. In the two decades following the development of the atomic bomb, government expenditure on science increased fifty-fold. This meant that in the years 1956–1957, ten years after the Manhattan Project, the Federal government supplied almost 60% of scientific research funding, no doubt partially driven by the beginnings of the Cold War. (Mainzer, 1961).
Mainzer goes on to describe that scientific freedom may not survive in the United States if it is funded by the government. Perhaps the research that gets funded by the government is not funded for the good of the people, but rather, for the good of the government.
If the atomic bomb is used as the example, it seems obvious that the research was more valuable to the government than to the people. But the argument exists that the public did get some utility out of it, because further Allied war casualties were diminished through the existence of the bomb.
Another negative to government sponsored research is the responsibility of the government scientists to do as they are told. Scientists like Robert Oppenheimer had to perform their work, even if they were morally opposed to the work. Oppenheimer eventually lost his clearance, his job, and was portrayed as a communist at his security trial. (Schweber, 2000).
Perhaps for these reasons, scientific innovation is strongest in the private sector, rather than the public sector. Companies who run their own research and development programs, are better able to contribute to science because they are not beholden to the motivations of the government. They are free to explore the topics that interest them and generate the most profit, presumably to help the consumer.
Private research labs are also able to recruit scientists who are committed to their work, and not researching because they are contractually obligated to. Scientists like Oppenheimer who opposed unethical research, like the hydrogen bomb, have a platform to voice their opinion, rather than keep quiet as government employees.
Los Alamos National Laboratory has a rich history that is relevant to today. There are concerns of government research and ethical conduct, where the needs of the nation must be weighed against the needs of the people. The laboratory continues its work and looks to tackle the world’s newest problems like energy infrastructure and quantum computing.
Mainzer, L. (1961). Scientific Freedom in Government-Sponsored Research. The Journal of Politics, 23(2), 212–230. https://doi.org/10.2307/2126703
Rotter, A. (2008). Hiroshima the world’s bomb. Oxford; Oxford University Press.
Schweber, S. (2000). In the shadow of the bomb: Oppenheimer, Bethe, and the moral responsibility of the scientist. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.