BY MAIRE O’NEILL
For the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, the economic impact of Los Alamos National Laboratory included more than $1.2 billion in salaries for employees, LANL Director Thom Mason told participants in a virtual community conversation Tuesday morning. This number does not include salaries for craft employees or subcontractors.
Mason noted that the total funding for the Lab exceeded $3 billion last year for the very first time. In FY2020, LANL awarded some $494 million in contracts to New Mexico businesses the majority of which were small businesses. He later said $104 million in contracts were with women-owned small businesses and $17 million with veteran-owned businesses, adding that the Lab works hard to diversify the talent base in the small business community and that a lot of those businesses develop capabilities that they can take to other markets beyond LANL.
In FY2020 gross receipts tax for LANL exceeded $100 million for the first time, coming in at some $102 million.
Mason said LANL directly or indirectly supports some 25,000 jobs in the state and that the number is growing. In FY2020, he said 1,152 new employees were hired which is on pace with the level of hiring over the last several years. The previous year, 1,250 were hired and Mason noted that there was a little bit of a drop off when COVID first started while the Lab adapted to doing things differently. About half the new hires are replacements for people retiring or going to other jobs while the other half are being hired because the Lab budgets are growing which means missions are growing.
“As we look to the future, growth is going to continue and depending on what happens with the budget this year things could significantly accelerate. We’re hopeful the budget will be resolved before Christmas and there’s significant increase that’s been proposed for Los Alamos that’s on the table for discussion,” Mason said. “I would say that at this point I’m cautiously optimistic that if there is a successful budget compromise reached, that will include a significant increase in funding for the Laboratory to support our new missions and that will mean that we have to work even harder in terms of training, recruiting and onboarding and building the careers of new staff. Fingers are still crossed on that but the signs are rather positive.”
He noted that the proposed budget includes not only funding for new staff but funding for much-needed infrastructure.
Mason first discussed the impact of COVID-19 saying that like everyone else, LANL has had to be very adaptable and change the way things are done.
“Obviously, given our national security missions, the Lab is considered an essential service and we have continued to operate. Of course, we’re making maximum use of teleworking, in fact the vast majority of our staff are working from home at least some of the time – about 70 percent has been the average over the past several months. Some of what we do can’t be performed from home. We have hands on facilities that we have to keep safe and so forth, so we’ve also had to adapt how we operate on site to be very flexible to keep the density down to avoid spreading the virus,” he said.
It turns out that the gold standard test for COVID-19 is something called PCR -Polymerase Chain Reaction – and that requires rather sophisticated and expensive equipment but it turns out it’s sophisticated and expensive equipment that is the toolkit for modern biology so we already it and had the skilled technicians that knew how to use it,” he said. “That allowed us, with the accreditation from the state, the ability to test employees.”
Mason said because of the Lab’s in-house testing capability called Polymerase Chain Reaction, which is the gold standard highest-accuracy COVID test, LANL was able to get accredited through the Department of Health to do testing. More than 10,000 tests have been conducted at LANL since March, testing both the staff that have to be on site and to quickly resolve cases that may come up for staff who have symptoms or close contacts to determine whether or not there’s a concern.
Mason said LANL has been experiencing the same trajectory on the pandemic as the communities around it and the counties in which LANL staff which are predominantly Los Alamos, Rio Arriba, Santa Fe, Sandoval and Bernalillo.
“That means that through the fall we did see the fairly significant increase. We responded pretty much in sync with the state, particularly focusing on the Thanksgiving holiday. We ramped down our onsite activities and we’ve seen a taper in growth just as the state as a whole has as a result. That really showed that the actions we take do have an impact. It takes about two weeks but it’s very real – when we’ve responded we’ve seen reductions in the number of cases and it shows how we need to be cautious and to apply in many cases the simple, low-tech sorts of things like masks and hand-washing and keeping a distance and so forth,” he said.
Mason said LANL like everyone else is very excited about the prospect for inoculation with the vaccine that has been approved but recognizes that it’s really going to take several months before the supply is robust enough that it begins to really impact things.
“So we, like everyone else, are trying to stay focused and disciplined to get us through to that point of safety which is still a bit in front of us,” he said.
In addition to responding operationally, Mason said LANL has also been applying its science, technology and engineering expertise to the problem of COVID itself.
“We received funding through the CARES Act that supported things like our modeling group and in fact we’ve had expertise and staff and research around infectious disease modeling since the 70s recognizing the national security impacts of this sort of event so we were able to quickly pivot and use the same methods they applied previously to things like ebola, zika virus and so forth to model COVID,” he said.
He noted that LANL models have been cited by the CDC and that LANL has been working with the state to provide near-term projections of where things are headed in terms of caseloads, hospital beds and ventilators – critical resources that have become stressed as the pandemic has progressed.
“That’s not the only area of research we’ve been working on. We have expertise in terms of looking at progression of the various genetic variants of the virus across the globe and that’s attracted quite a bit of interest,” Mason said. “We’re also working on the supply chain challenges that arose with things like ventilators.”
He said LANL has received a total of about $18 million of research and development investments responding to the virus since the spring.
Mason said the final piece of the LANL COVID response has been shifting its efforts to support the community, recognizing the really tremendous hardship and dislocation economically and personally in terms of theCOVID tragedy
“We have been shifting our philanthropic support to COVID response efforts being undertaken by regional charitable organizations and we just completed our annual community giving campaign. Our staff have really stepped up. I think we all realize the hardship around the region and we have raised more than $2.4 million and over $2 million of that goes to charitable organizations in the local region where our employees live,” he said. “Triad is providing a 50 percent match to those contributions so that $2 million that are staff stepped up with will be augmented with an additional $1 million making a total of $3 million.”