When Thomas Zacharia was named Oak Ridge National Laboratory's Deputy for Science and Technology in March of this year, he traded responsibility for the world's leading computing program for the challenge of managing ORNL's $1.4 billion research and development portfolio. We asked Zacharia about his new role and the challenges of leading the lab's technology agenda in changing times.
Q. You come from a computing background. What role do you see computing playing in the development of the laboratory's agenda?
I actually began my career at the laboratory as a postdoctoral fellow in the Metals and Ceramics Division, so I have both physical and computational sciences in my background. Computing, alongside theory and experiment, has an important role to play in scientific discovery. From climate change to energy production to energy storage and distribution, computing offers the opportunity to address problems that could not otherwise be solved and to guide the next generation of experiments. As we pursue new energy technologies and new opportunities, computing has the potential to accelerate our progress. Also, because it brings multiple disciplines together, it has the ability to integrate the laboratory around a common purpose. I believe that computing and computational sciences will allow us to address important challenges more effectively as multidisciplinary teams.
Q. What has been the greatest difference in your new role as Deputy for Science and Technology?
The principal difference is that I now have a broader exposure to and deeper appreciation for the laboratory, and I now represent the entire laboratory, rather than primarily computing.
I have the opportunity to facilitate laboratory-wide engagement across a broader spectrum of issues and programs. As I look toward the future and the role that the laboratory will play in the areas of scientific discovery and innovation, energy security, environmental sustainability, and national security, I'm impressed by the talent that we have and how well positioned we are to support the Department of Energy's missions and goals. We have the opportunity to positively impact not only the nation but also the planet.
Q. Are there specific areas in which you may want to reshape this job?
I don't believe there is any job at this level that is very prescriptive. Everyone brings to the job a unique experience base, as well as goals, dreams, and aspirations for the organization. Will I do this job differently than my predecessors? Probably, yes—because we are different individuals with different life experiences. Am I coming into this job thinking I have to reshape it? Absolutely not. I think my predecessors have done a terrific job in helping this laboratory grow—doubling its budget over a period of about seven or eight years. During that period, we have hired almost 1900 new staff.
During my career, I have been able to pull together different capabilities and talent from across the laboratory to pursue major initiatives and objectives. The challenge that faces all of us in terms of energy security and environmental sustainability requires all of the capabilities we have, from neutron sciences, to computing, to materials, to energy technology, to our strength in translating basic science to applied technologies. I'm hopeful that I can be effective in developing a strategic path forward by engaging the leadership from across the laboratory.
Q. What areas do you view as ORNL's greatest opportunity in the years ahead?
We have been given a tremendous opportunity to shape the course of history. I think the research that we perform at the lab—if we are successful—is going to dramatically change how the planet evolves, how we produce and consume energy, how we improve our standard of living, and how we drive the economy.
There is a Chinese proverb that says if we don't make any changes, we are likely to end up where we are headed. We have an opportunity to make some fundamental changes in energy generation and consumption, that will directly affect the global economy. Both are very important because they drive our quality of life. The challenges we face in these areas are immense. I believe Oak Ridge National Laboratory—the people who are the organization—is going to have a huge impact.
We also have the opportunity to create a strategic vision for the future of the laboratory and execute. As Wayne Gretzky said, "Skate where the puck's going, not where it's been." That means we have to be very strategic in our recruiting. We have to hire the people who will create a laboratory that is impactful—not just today or tomorrow, but 10, 20, or 30 years from now. Decisions we make in recruiting are going to have a long-term impact on our ability to perform research and continue to bring about improvements for humankind.
We must also be a good neighbor. A recent article by Chairman Bart Gordon of the House Science and Technology Committee stated that scientists who benefit from the funding provided by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) program should focus not only on solving scientific challenges but also on creating jobs—not only in the community, but in the region and in the nation. This must be a priority for the laboratory.
Q. Will the ARRA alter ORNL's mission in a major way?
Let me use a sports analogy. When you go into a game with a game plan or a strategy, you don't change it based on instantaneous scores, because that causes you to second-guess yourself. You might tweak the game plan a little, but you don't dramatically change the strategy.
The laboratory has some central themes: excel in science and technology, excel in operations, and excel in community service. We have scientific priorities in neutron science, computing, energy technologies, and materials. We're not going to change any of these. We are going to build on our unique ability to translate basic science into applied technologies to tackle the energy challenge.
ARRA along with base S&T budget growth will enable us to accelerate our progress and to sharpen our focus on delivering value and results, while creating jobs. It also gives us tools for growing our S&T base budget.
Q. What will be the greatest obstacles to meeting the enormous expectations of ARRA?
The obstacles are clearly the ability to strategically recruit in a timely way and to execute in a purposeful way. We have to execute quickly, and we have to execute wisely. We must have the talent to accomplish those two goals.
I believe that laboratory management and leadership throughout the organization are aware of the importance that this administration and this nation have placed on the scientific community delivering on the goals of ARRA. The President recently announced that he would like to spend three percent of our gross domestic product on science and technology. As a result, I expect substantial growth in science and technology investments—particularly those that are energy related.
This is the time for us to make wise decisions. History will judge us all based on the decisions that we make. If we make wise and thoughtful decisions, history will be kind to us.
Q. Is there anything you would like to add?
I knew I would enjoy the new responsibility based simply on the opportunity to positively influence a storied institution with a historic impact in advancing science discovery and innovation. I am thankful for the opportunity to learn more about the laboratory. I look forward to getting to better know the talented people and the capabilities that we have. I am making it a priority to visit different areas of the laboratory at least once a week, to be exposed to the interesting science—but more importantly, to the capable people we have all across the laboratory.
I would also like to mention that the national laboratories, in general, have experienced relatively modest growth for more than a decade. As a result, sometimes people and programs have been narrowly focused. Just as I would like to help facilitate collaboration within Oak Ridge National Laboratory, I am making it a priority to visit our sister laboratories with the goal of being a catalyst for collaboration across the laboratory system.
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