The Reagan administration's plan to abolish the Department of Energy greatly increases the confusion in our already confused and run-down national laboratories. While these centers of federal energy research and development have always been in a state of flux, the increased political and fiscal pressures of recent years threaten finally to drive the remaining scientists and engineers away.

This was the fear of Gen. Leslie R. Groves, director of the Manhattan Project, during the debate over post-war control of atomic energy. In 1945, he testified before a Senate special committee that uncertainty in the absence of national policy made it impossible to offer commitments to key people whose services he felt should be retained. Already, then, important people were leaving Los Alamos and other war-time sites to accept more attractive positions. Groves feared that delay in establishing an independent commission would "result in appreciable loss of the present efficiency of the vast combination of plants, scientific talent and engineering skill." This fear was to be allayed, but the commission has evolved into an energy structure without power.

The Atomic Energy Commission finally was created by Congress in 1946, and the national laboratories divided their efforts between military and civilian development of atomic power. Under the AEC, technological advances in nuclear weapons and power reactors evolved over a 30-year period, but criticism of the agency's role as both promoter and regulator of the power of the atom led to its separation into the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Energy Research and Development Administration in 1975. Since then the direction of nuclear energy R&D, at least its peaceful component, has been in disarray, and the fears of Groves have become reality now.

Although ERDA had an organization chart in 1975, it had little organization and less direction, at least from the vantage point of the scientists and engineers who were ultimately responsible for realizing ERDA policy in the national laboratories. Full of ideas, both nuclear and non- nuclear, for solving the energy crisis, the laboratories' staffs proposed alternative R&D programs, sometimes competing among themselves not only for ERDA's but also for other agencies' funds. The nuclear engineers and scientists knew that their mechanics, thermodynamics and mathematics applied also to solar, coal and conservation projects. They were ready to attack energy problems on whatever front Washington wished, but Washington wished all energy were in one neat funding package.

ERDA barely had time to find itself adminstratively before it was absorbed into the Department of Energy in 1977, and this led to another directionless transition period. What DOE management finally decided, in 1979, was that the national laboratories themselves should serve as Technical Management Centers and oversee national R&D in their own areas of expertise. This led to yet another period of reorganization and redefinition. Scientists and engineers were becoming increasingly frustrated with Washington's indecision. Now, just as the TMC concept is evolving into something the scientists and engineers can deal with as a known quantity, the Reagan administration has called for still another reorganization, placing all R&D under an Energy Research and Technology Administration within the Commerce Department!

During these periods of managerial transition, the R&D staff has dwindled, as Groves so presciently feared it would. While Washington has drafted organization chart after organization chart, the neglected staff have seen their careers atrophy and their salaries fall behind those of private industry.

In the western suburbs of Chicago, Bell Laboratories has been able to lure scores of PhDs away from energy R&D at Argonne National Laboratory by offering them sizable salary increases and definite projects on which to work. The work has nothing to do with energy, but the experience gained on large computers and computer programs at government expense is a bargain to Bell. The departing researchers have not been replaced at Argonne during the last few uncertain years, and this has placed an additional burden on those who remain, waiting for the announcement of their mission. The situation is similar at Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island and at other laboratories across the country.

This attrition cannot continue much longer without endangering the efficiency of the nation's energy R&D structure. The national laboratories are an energy resource as surely as are coal and petroleum, and it is imperative that our political leaders conserve the laboratories. The best way to do this is to get them organized once and for all, to set firm national energy objectives, and to give the scientists and engineers a clear mandate to achieve those objectives.