"Nano-bio-info: Built upon a foundation of scientific and operational excellence." That could be the title of the message ORNL Director Jeff Wadsworth frequently delivers in his speeches to the public. Nanoscience, biology, and large-scale computing are three research initiatives expected to dominate science and technology in this century, largely because of their promise for improving our lives. New facilities expected to be operating between now and mid-decade at ORNL will position the Laboratory to be a world leader in these three "thrusts," as Wadsworth calls them. He emphasizes that this leadership is possible only because of the very strong science and engineering foundation at the Lab. The Department of Energy is committing greatly increased funding in these areas, based on the Office of Science's 20-year facilities plan, announced November 10, 2003. Three of the 28 proposed facilities, including a second target station for the Spallation Neutron Source, would ensure ORNL's role as the world leader in neutron science for years to come.
Wadsworth is an internationally recognized metallurgist who came to ORNL in August 2003 after a year at Battelle's world headquarters and 10 years at DOE's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in senior management positions. He is excited by ORNL's future, which will include opportunities for the Laboratory to respond to problems of national interest, such as increasing homeland security, decreasing the odds of power blackouts, contributing to climate modeling, and spurring the economy through technology transfer. In this interview, he talks about ORNL's strengths and challenges.
Q. In light of your focus on technology transfer and homeland security while at Livermore and Battelle, will ORNL become more of an applied sciences lab and less of a basic science lab?
We will continue to do both basic and applied work. We have a terrific scientific foundation and we are competitive in the country's current research thrusts in nanoscience, life science, and large-scale computing. We are applying our capabilities to problems of national scale and the Department of Energy's main missions of national security, energy, and the environment. The content of each of those missions changes with time. Today the defense missions include homeland security and intelligence work. Twenty years ago, they were warhead design and underground testing. In energy, the recent blackout in the Northeast greatly increased interest in research to improve the power grid. Around the country a year ago, the grid wasn't a
big deal, but it is now. Our scientific foundation and capabilities in thrust areas allow us to be flexible in supporting the important national missions of our time.
Q. Exactly, how might ORNL's research portfolio change?
I think national security is likely to grow, because right now the country has a huge concern about nonproliferation and homeland security. Economic development and technology transfer will receive increased emphasis, partly because of the new Battelle venture capital
fund (to create and grow companies from technologies developed at ORNL and other Battelle-managed national labs). I hope to grow the biology program, and I'd like to give our important work in the environmental sciences more visibility.
Q. Will ORNL be able to compete effectively with DOE's weapons labs for funding from the Department of Homeland Security?
When I left Livermore in August 2002 and joined Battelle-Columbus, half of my assignment was to work with the White House transition planning office of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). We studied carefully the capabilities of the DOE national labs. Oak Ridge and Pacific Northwest were seen as having capabilities in parts of homeland security that were more than competitive with the capabilities of the weapons labs—Livermore, Los Alamos, and Sandia. We have been named one of five DHS core labs. Because of our core capability in understanding
isotopes, Oak Ridge's niche will be to lead efforts to find ways to detect radiation dispersal devices, or dirty bombs. We have contributions to make in chem-bio detection and information processing, which includes population models and work that requires massive computing, such as extracting meaningful information from complicated data sets. We are working with the other four labs on developing partnerships and plans in these areas.
Q. Some principal investigators and other researchers in small programs are concerned about funding levels in FY2005. What message do you have for them?
If the energy bill passes and provides the increased funding proposed for DOE's Office of Science, we can compete for more funding for small PI-driven research. Politically, the way the world works, people tend to get more excited about buying science in terms of large projects. Large-scale scientific signature facilities, such as the Spallation Neutron Source, distinguish national labs from industry and universities. DOE is not neglecting the smaller programs and the PI-driven research, but the agency is articulating its science future around major user facilities, which will impact the future of science. Under those facilities is a lot of PI-driven research.
Q. What is ORNL's future as an energy lab?
We have a large energy portfolio, one of the broadest in the country. At a recent DOE on-site review, we presented our vision for what ORNL can do to help the country in the next 5 to 15 years in terms of the power grid, nuclear energy, energy efficiency, fusion energy, and the hydrogen economy.
Q. What are ORNL's strengths and competitive advantages?
We have some very good scientific capability in the thrust areas the country is investing in—nanoscience, computing, and biology. We have an opportunity to become world-class in all three. I think we will be first in our neutron science capability under nanoscience. With our computing capabilities, our partnership with Cray, and a new building, we are well positioned to compete for a large supercomputer that may be in the federal budget. In biology we have a rich history with the mouse genomics program. We will work hard to win the DOE genome program facility for characterizing protein complexes. Other strengths are our support for the community and the political and business support we receive, which is second to none. Finally, our modernization program is just sensational. No other lab in this country has a modernization program that looks like ours. It's a huge advantage when it comes to winning new programs and recruiting new people.
Q. What are ORNL's most serious challenges?
Our safety record needs to improve. We have had problems in operating our facilities properly. These deficiencies are a huge distraction to us as we try to become the country's premier national lab. It's hard to overstate how important it is to run the lab safely and efficiently in order to be successful in our major science and technology missions. Another serious challenge we have is work force development. Over the next five years a significant percentage of the work force will become eligible for retirement. We will be hiring new people across the board. Ray Orbach, director of DOE's Office of Science, told us recently that, if we are successful in our ambitions to bring exciting new capabilities to the Laboratory, we must attract world-class scientific expertise. He wants us to aspire to be the Bell Labs of the 21st century, like the Bell Labs of the last century, when it was thought to be the place of great scientific discovery. We should try to make Oak Ridge the place where people naturally think to go for the best science in the country.
Q. What mark would you like to leave as director of the Laboratory?
I think this is a fantastic laboratory. I think it should be the world's best laboratory in our fields of endeavor. As employees we should strive to be as good as we can be. If we succeed in our ambitions to have a vibrant intellectual capability as a foundation stone; if we can operate safely, efficiently, and cost effectively; and if we can contribute to the nation's scientific thrust areas and solve national problems, we can indeed be the best in the world.
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