Newly minted Oak Ridge National Laboratory Director Thom Mason has been breaking lots of ground at ORNL. He joined the Laboratory in 1998 as scientific director of the Spallation Neutron Source with construction of the $1.4 billion science project just beginning and moved through the ranks to become director of the project in 2001. His leadership contributed to the completion of the SNS on time and on budget. With neutrons now flying for research, Mason has been named ORNL director, replacing Jeff Wadsworth following his departure to Battelle's Columbus, Ohio, headquarters.
At 42, Mason is the youngest director appointed to the position since the late Herman Postma and represents a new generation of leadership at ORNL. His new role comes at a time of transition as the Laboratory shifts from a period of construction and modernization to an increased focus on utilizing new facilities to deliver premier scientific research. With an investment in high-performance computing that will result in the world's most powerful open-science supercomputer, the SNS, a rejuvenated campus, the upgraded High Flux Isotope Reactor and the new Nanoscience Center, Mason's job will be to guide the Laboratory quite literally from big construction to big science.
In an interview with the ORNL Review, Mason talks about this transition and his own hopes for his tenure here.—Larisa Brass
Q. With the SNS construction and HFIR upgrade complete, with ORNL on track to have the world's most powerful supercomputer and a mad flurry of other construction now nearly done, your job as lab director contains an increasing responsibility to take these facilities and deliver the science. How do you plan to do that?
Over the past several years, the agenda for the Laboratory has been the development of a variety of new capabilities. That came about partly because of funding opportunities, but the strategy also resulted from a genuine need. A number of areas had been neglected for too long and required a renewed focus of attention. That activity is ongoing. There are still older areas of the Laboratory that need modernization. I think what we see shifting is the balance between new facilities and capabilities and the execution of the science program using the new assets we now have. Our staff and customers have high expectations, given the investments that have been made, that we are going to be delivering first-ranked science. We must meet those expectations.
Most of these new facilities contain scientific capabilities that cut across traditional disciplines at the Laboratory. Part of our challenge is understanding that our potential is not restricted to any single discipline or programmatic outcome. We must view the new capabilities as tools and ask the question, "How can we use those tools in different ways?" (Former ORNL director) Jeff Wadsworth likes to talk about nano-info-bio as the underlying science, so one of the things I'm interested in doing is thinking about and engaging in a discussion of how we take nano-info-bio as a toolkit and apply the tools in a creative way to today's problems, such as energy.
Q. You mentioned energy. What do you see as the primary areas of research focus for the Laboratory over the next five to 10 years?
Energy is one of the pressing societal problems that we are applying our capabilities to solve—one of what we sometimes call "grand scientific challenges." This emphasis comes partly from the fact that ORNL is an energy lab, but also because there is a realization that solutions for adequate and affordable energy will require some historic breakthroughs in science. At our new Bioenergy Science Center, for example, there is considerable excitement about developing cellosic ethanol to displace foreign oil imports and to provide a sustainable source of non-fossil fuel. While the anticipation is great, some fundamental science needs to be done if cellulosic ethanol is actually going to become economically viable. This is basic science driven by a desired outcome.
I think another area that is going to be evolving in the near future is nuclear technology. My own view is that the increased use of nuclear has to be part of the long-term energy solution, but there are still challenges to be resolved. I think ORNL can have an impact on, for example, what to do with the waste stream, which is important if there is going to be headroom for nuclear power as an option for electricity production. Fortunately, ORNL has a rich history and a broad suite of capabilities in nuclear research.
Finally, I think we have a stewardship responsibility for these new, major facilities that we need to execute well on behalf of the external science community. A big part of this responsibility is making sure we have scientific programs at ORNL that are preeminent among the users of those facilities. We would be squandering the opportunity if these users do not enrich our science base and vice versa.
Q. This issue of the ORNL Review is devoted to climate change. What is ORNL's potential in this area of research?
Climate is obviously becoming increasingly important. There is a lot of policy discussion taking place about mitigation and legislation being introduced that needs to be informed by the very best science. If we look, for example, at what is happening with high-performance computing and the impact of tremendous improvements in computer performance on what we can model, we have an opportunity to impact the climate discussion. This is going to be important for public understanding, because people do not experience the climate, they experience weather. When someone sees a newspaper article that says the average temperature will increase by 3 degrees, it is easy to say, "Well, yesterday it was 95 and today it's 85. That's a 10-degree change, so who cares about a 3-degree change?" The reason you care about a 3-degree change is that when the average changes that much, there are changes in the weather that do impact us. The rainfall patterns may shift, storm frequency and severity may change and so forth. We need to understand these changes and their impacts. So the high-performance computing, along with our experimental work in environmental and biological science, give us the ability to understand the impacts of climate changes. Research at ORNL allows the scientific community to make better contact between these significant shifts in average climate behavior and things that actually have an impact on people and populations—and therefore on the policies that deal with these changes.
Q. Becoming lab director seems like a transition for you as well, shifting from the start-up of a large project to oversight of a number of programs in various stages of life. How are you approaching this transition?
Well, it's funny, because I was originally attracted to Oak Ridge, not so much by the opportunity to be involved in a construction project but because of the opportunity that was going to be available after the construction project. I never expected that I would be responsible for the construction of SNS. As Laboratory director, my interest comes more from executing the science phase than the building phase. Now you don't get to execute the science if you are not building and going forward. If we are not kicking off some things now that will come to fruition in five, 10 and 15 years, then those opportunities will never happen. I come from this point of view: here are the things we want to be doing. In order to do them there is some amount of building that we have to do but building is not an end in itself. You have to build in order to be able to do the science at the other end.
Q. How do you demonstrate success of ORNL's research initiatives? Buildings tend to be more obvious, and understandable, than research results. Short of a Nobel Prize, how do taxpayers know they're getting their money's worth from ORNL?
At ORNL we have the ability to link up the fundamental science with some of the more applied, outcome-oriented work, so the things that the general public resonates with are things that actually impact their lives. You need to be able to talk about how development of new magnetic materials leads to more compact electric motors appearing as automatic window openers that are smaller and lighter and therefore lead to more fuel-efficient cars. That is something everyone can experience. The investments in the science we do at the lab are ultimately predicated on the fact that they lead to an improved economic competitiveness for the nation and higher standards of living. One of the advantages we have at the Laboratory, which is not true for every lab, is that we actually have programs that cut across that continuum.
I think one of the challenges is for us to do a better job linking the fundamental science discoveries with the things that really lead to improvements that people can feel in their daily lives. Sometimes it takes a very long time and the connections are not obvious.
Q. So how do you improve that technology transfer channel out of the lab?
In a way that technology transfer component is the last step. I'm actually thinking more about what can happen within the laboratory rather than at the exit sign. If you look, for example, at basic energy science programs, there has been a lot of activity developing programs around what is called "use-inspired research." It may be basic science for solar energy or basic science for nuclear energy, or whatever. There is this basic science underpinning, but the outcome of that is not ready for tech transfer.
There is another step after the basic science and that is the applied science of trying to get things to the point where you can actually engage in the tech transfer discussion. That involves more engineering and doing things in a prototypical way. Only after you've made that link from the basic to the applied are you able to engage in the tech transfer discussion. So that is something that needs to happen within the lab and bridge different programs. Here at ORNL, because we have both basic science and applied research going on, we can do some of that linking up naturally.
Q. What are the obstacles you have to overcome to create those connections?
There is the usual kind of organizational issues when you are trying to stimulate discussion. Not every scientist at the lab needs to be thinking about widgets that are going to be made with their research. But at least some people should have the inclination to deploy the outcomes of their research—and should have the opportunity to do that. Because we have such a broad skills mix within the lab, part of that is just getting the conversation going so that people can discover someone else in another program who may be interested in what they're doing. Once people start working together, you tend to overcome some of the organizational barriers.
Q. One important issue for laboratories like ORNL is attracting the up-and-comers in the scientific community. Being young yourself, how will you approach recruitment of young scientists?
The fact that we've gone through this significant modernization positions us well for recruiting. If young scientists and engineers are looking around the world and saying, "Where do I want to be?," I think we can be at the top of their list just because of the capabilities that we have. We are much better positioned for recruiting than when I came here in 1998. But in the end people aren't solely attracted by the existence of some buildings or facilities. They are drawn to the intellectual climate and the fact that there are other smart people around who are stimulating and challenging and pushing hard. There are parts of the lab where this goes on now. There are other areas where we need to improve.
One of the things that I'm interested in is figuring out ways to increase the number of students and post-docs and people who may not be permanent staff but are working with scientists at the lab. Some of them may be pretty good and they may want to stay on as permanent staff. Even in cases where people visit for a while and collaborate and return to their home institution, there is still value that is gained because of the impact on the intellectual environment. With user facilities you get that flow-through naturally, but with the other programs you actually have to go out and create it, so that is something we need to work on.
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