Some men are born mediocre, some men achieve mediocrity, and some men have mediocrity trust upon them.
― Joseph Heller
In taking a deep breathe and pausing from my daily grind, I considered the question, “what do we want from our Labs?” By Labs I mean the loose collection of largely government sponsored research institutions supporting everything from national defense to space exploration. By, we, I mean the Nation and its political, intellectual and collective leadership. Working at a Lab for the last 25 plus years under the auspices of the Department of Energy (working for two Labs actually), I think this question is worth a lot of deep thinking and consideration.
A reasonable conclusion drawn from the experiences given my span of employment would be,
“We want to destroy the Labs as competent entities.”
I’m fairly sure this isn’t the intent of our National Leadership, but rather an outcome of other desires. Otherwise well-intentioned directives that have deeply damaging unintended consequences drive the destruction of the Labs. While calling the directives well-intentioned is probably correct, the mindset driving them is largely a combination of fear, control and unremittingly short-term thinking. Such destruction is largely a consequence of changes in National behavior that sweep across every political and economic dimension. Many of the themes parallel the driving forces of inequality and a host of other societal transformations.
One of the key aspects of the Labs that deeply influenced my own decision to work there was their seemingly enduring commitment to excellence. In the years since, this commitment has wavered and withered to the point where excellence gets lip service and little else. The environment no longer supports the development or maintenance of truly excellent science and engineering (despite frequent protestations of being “World Class”). Our National Labs were once truly World Class, but no more. Decades of neglect and directives that conflict directly with achieving World Class results have destroyed any and all claim to such lofty status. We are not part of an acceptance of mediocrity that we willfully ignore and ignorantly claim to be excellent and world class.
World Class requires commitment to quality of the sort we cannot muster because it also requires a degree on independence and vigorous intellectual exchange that our masters can no longer tolerate. So, here is my first answer of what they want from the Labs,
“obedience” and “compliance”
above all else. Follow rules and work on what you are told to work on. Neither of these values can ever lead to anything “World Class”. I would submit that these values could only undermine and work to decay everything needed to be excellent.
One place where the fundamental nature of excellence and the governance of the Labs intersect is the expectations on work done. If one principle dominates the expectations that the Labs must comply with is
“do not ever ever ever fail at anything”.
The kneejerk response from politicians, the public and the increasingly scandal-mongering media is “that seems like a really good thing.” If they don’t fail then money won’t be wasted and they’ll just do good work. Wrong and wrong! If we don’t allow failure, we won’t allow success either, the two are intertwined as surely as life and death.
In reality this attitude have been slowly strangling the quality from the Labs. By never allowing failure we see a march steadily toward mediocrity and away from excellence. No risks are ever taken, and the environment to develop World Class people, research and results is smothered. We see an ever-growing avalanche of accounting and accountability to make sure no money ever gets wasted doing anything that wasn’t pre-approved. Meticulous project planning swallows up any and all professional judgment, risk-taking or opportunities. Breakthroughs are scheduled years in advance, absurd as that sounds.
People forget how fast you did a job – but they remember how well you did it
― Howard Newton
The real and dominant outcome from all this surety of outcomes is a loss of excellence, innovation and an ever-diminishing quality. The real losers will be the Nation, its security and its economic vitality into the future. Any vibrancy and supremacy we have in economics and security is the product of our science and technology excellence thirty to forty years ago. We are vulnerable to be preyed upon by whomever has the audacity to take risks and pursue the quality we have destroyed.
Another piece of the puzzle are the salaries and benefits for the employees and managers. At one level it is clear that we are paid well, or at least better than the average American. The problem is that in relative terms we are losing ground every year to where we once were. On the one hand we are told that we are World Class, yet we are compensated at a market-driven, market-average rate. Therefore we are either incredibly high-minded or the stupidest World Class performers out there. At the same time the management’s compensation has shot up, especially at the top of the management of the Labs. On the one hand this is simply an extension of the market-driven approach. Our executives are compensated extremely well, but not in comparison to their private industry peers. In sum the overall picture painted by the compensation at the Labs is one of confusion, and priorities that are radically out of step with the rhetoric.
All of this is tragic enough in and of itself were it simply happening at the Labs alone. Instead these trends merely echo a larger chorus of destruction society wide. We see all our institutions of excellence under a similar assault. Education is being savaged by many of the same forces. Colleges view the education of the next generation as a mere afterthought to balancing their books and filling their coffers. Students are a source of money rather than a mission. One need only look at what universities value; one thing is clear educating students isn’t their priority. Business exists solely to enrich their executives and stockholders; customers and community be damned. Our national infrastructure is crumbling without anyone rising to even fix what already exists. Producing an infrastructure suitable for the current Century is a bridge too far. All the while the Country pours endless resources into the Military-Industrial Complex for the purpose of fighting paper tigers and imaginary enemies. Meanwhile the internal enemies of our future are eating us from within and winning without the hint of struggle.
In the final analysis what are we losing by treating our Labs with such callousness and disregard? For the most part we are losing opportunity to innovate, invent and discover the science and technology of the future. In the 25 years following World War II the Labs were an instrumental set of institutions that created the future and continued the discoveries that drove science and technology. The achievements of that era are the foundation of the supremacy in both National defense and security, but also economic power. By destroying the Labs as we are doing, we assure that this supremacy will fade into history and we will be overtaken by other powers. It is suicide by a slow acting poison.
Quality means doing it right when no one is looking.
― Henry Ford
We have short-circuited the engines of excellence in trying to control risk and demonstrate accountability. The best way to control risk is not take any. We have excelled at this. By not taking risks we don’t have to deal with or explain failure in the short-term, but in the long-term we destroy quality and undermine excellence. Accountability is the same. We know how every dollar is spent, and what work is done every hour of the day, but that money no longer supports serendipity and the professional discretion and judgment that underpinned the monumental achievements of the past. One cannot claim to plan or determine a priori the breakthroughs and discoveries they haven’t made yet. Now we simply have low-risk and fully accountable Laboratories that can only be described as being mediocre.
Such mediocrity provides the Nation with no short-term issues to explain or manage, but makes our long-term prospects clearly oriented towards a decline in the Nation’s fortunes. We seem to uniformly lack the courage and ethical regard for our children to stop this headlong march away from excellence. Instead we embrace mediocrity because it’s an easy and comfortable short-term choice.
We don’t get a chance to do that many things, and every one should be really excellent. Because this is our life.
― Steve Jobs
The only sin is mediocrity.
― Martha Graham