NEWPORT NEWS — For scientists at Jefferson Lab, this is mostly a case of meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
The U.S. Department of Energy has awarded a five-year management contract to the group that has been operating the research center for more than two decades, but which has brought in a corporate partner with computer and business experience.
The new contract "will provide stability," said Dr. Christoph Leemann, the current lab director, who will remain in his post. "There will be some well-managed, controlled changes. There will be no upheaval. I think this is all good news."
To get the contract, the new corporate entity - Jefferson Science Associates - had to prove to the federal government that it could competently manage the 700-employee facility formally known as the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility, where scientists study the basic building blocks of matter.
Federal officials were comfortable with the new partnership, formed in the wake of a 2003 audit that determined roughly $400,000 was misspent by lab management to cover deficits in the operation of the lab's hotel for staff and guests and for "entertainment expenses including receptions and holiday parties."
Some of the money was repaid, the audit dispute was settled, and the Department of Justice dropped an investigation into the expenditures.
An extensive presentation made to the Department of Energy sealed the deal for a new contract, Leemann said.
The new five-year contract - to manage roughly $100 million in annual congressional appropriations to the lab - can be renewed for an additional 15 years if the federal government decides management performance is acceptable.
"We have selected the team that we believe is best equipped to lead this important ... laboratory for the department, and we look forward to working with them as they manage Jefferson Lab in support of the scientific community," said Dr. Raymond Orbach, the Energy Department's director of the office of science.
Jefferson Lab was established in 1984 and is located on 206 acres in Newport News.
Southeastern Universities Research Association, a non-profit consortium of 62 Southeast research universities, has long run the lab and has received roughly $2 million a year to oversee management and operations.
After the audit, SURA brought in CSC Applied Technologies - based in the Washington, D.C., area - as a minority partner and formed the new company that obtained the contract.
"We felt we could enhance our bid by partnering with CSC to bring fresh insights to the lab's operation to complement its already 'best-in-class' and innovative scientific program," said Jerry P. Draayer, president and CEO of SURA.
The Department of Energy wanted stronger management controls at all the scientific facilities it funds, and has been awarding contracts that reflect an emphasis on stronger management practices - instead of pure science experience, Leemann said.
"It's not a flat-out renewal of the contract," said Leemann. "It is not a continuation of the status quo. The department expected change. It is a new legal entity."
The new contract potentially is worth up to $2 billion over the next 20 years, provided federal funding of Jeff Lab operations remains stable at the current $100 million annual level.
The stability provided by the new contract allows Jefferson Lab managers to move ahead on a $300 million upgrade to lab facilities and to continue, undisturbed, with potentially groundbreaking research, Leemann said.
The research program is home to the country's leading experts in superconducting accelerator technology, and more than 2,000 scientists from around the world use the lab's facilities every year. Scientists there research the basic building blocks of the nucleus of the atom.
Submitted: Thursday, April 13, 2006 - 12:00am