An item by David Kramer in the May 2012 issue of Physics Today (page 26) discusses problems between the National Nuclear Security Administration and the weapons laboratories. Compliance with federal management directives is among the central issues. I offer here a pedestrian view to some of the points raised. I am a visiting faculty member from Germany to the unclassified part of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, where I have accumulated several years of work experience over the past 15 years.

A new contractor took over the administration of Livermore a few years ago. As with any new contract, compliance is the goal, even though the value of some details turned out to be questionable. As an example, the new contract curtailed travel support for students, stranding those on assignments away from the lab. They had not been thought of beforehand, but the contract could not be violated or changed.

Also under the contract, all rehires are to be considered as new hires, with the full application of new-hire security procedures. The US State Department’s visa rules permit me only a string of short-term visas once my multiyear one expired. Thus six weeks after one appointment ended, my being employed for another six weeks required the full rehire and visa procedures. An outside company purporting to do worldwide criminal background investigations was tasked with investigating my career and talking to five personal references in the US and Germany. The process got hung up for weeks for the lack of one essential piece of verification: a confirmation of my degrees and the dates I earned them.

At least five times, the same laboratory—by different proxies—had requested that information from the same German university. In the more than 30 years since I received my PhD, the personnel at my university have probably processed some 200 000 students. Even if they were to understand the meaning of a cryptic form faxed from some US verification company, why would they send somebody to the archives to dig again for records that had been documented and shipped several times before? Imagine the labor cost! Curiously, as a cost savings the verification agents are instructed to avoid incurring long-distance telephone charges, so phone interviews with applicant references in foreign countries apparently are delegated to the local US consular staff.

Evidently, “compliance” has a very far reach and helps to significantly reduce the work efficiency even of national laboratories that are supposedly laboring in the national interest.