Finding the Right Match
A new strategy aligns security needs with existing technologies.
When the Global Security Directorate's (GSD's) predecessor organization was created, ORNL envisioned a tremendous untapped potential for matching the laboratory's diverse research portfolio with an equally diverse variety of needs from organizations in the national and homeland security arenas. Aware that numerous private-sector companies were adept at matching agency requirements and research capabilities, the laboratory saw a similar opportunity. The decision to pursue this opportunity eventually brought Randy Davis to the lab, tasked with the goal of using his background in privatesector program development to create a comparable system for connecting needs and capabilities in GSD. Nearly a decade later, ORNL's work for sponsors in the national and homeland security community has grown to more than $400 million, establishing GSD as a major component of ORNL's portfolio.
Unlike other research directorates, ORNL's Global Security organization does not directly employ scientists or engineers. Rather, the directorate focuses on facilitating laboratory research projects by functioning as the interface between sponsors and researchers.
"We do what I call mining and matching," Davis says. "First, we mine specific and often highly technical needs from our sponsors in the national or homeland security community. We then bring their 'lab-hard' requirements—research problems that only a national research facility could address—back to the lab and determine whether pursuing a given project at ORNL is mutually beneficial. The decision involves determining whether the project would fit the laboratory's agenda and would be something the laboratory can and wants to do." When a match emerges, GSD works in cooperation with the laboratory's diverse research community to structure an agreement with the sponsor to conduct the necessary research and development.
ORNL's approach today is responsible for attracting the equivalent of some 500 full-time employees' worth of research activity. Davis reflects on whether the GSD program has influenced the lab's broader agenda. "I don't know if our success is the chicken or the egg," Davis says. "Global security is one of ORNL's major missions, and the laboratory naturally increased its security profile as a result of the expanded efforts to counter global terrorism. However, the success we have enjoyed over the last decade in responding to sponsors' requirements resulted in ORNL becoming a provider of choice for the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Defense, the intelligence community and international nuclear nonproliferation efforts."
One key to GSD's success has been an ability to work across the laboratory's multiple research groups, identifying areas in which capabilities converge and taking advantage of exceptional scientists in a variety of disciplines. "An example of ORNL's advantage," Davis says, "is the ability to take a world-class computing capability, link it with materials technology and utilize systems engineering in a different part of the lab to develop a solution that solves a complicated problem. Solutions frequently cross two or more research divisions."
A good illustration of this cross-cutting ability is a GSD project designed to develop capabilities that would extend the operational life of the U.S. Marine Corps' Light Armored Vehicle (LAV), an eight-wheeled combat vehicle. A joint effort of research groups within several research divisions at ORNL, the LAV project required researchers to analyze large volumes of data collected from both vehicle service records and sensors located on or around critical vehicle components. Equipped with this data, researchers have been seeking to understand when and precisely why various components fail. Once the failure mechanisms are understood, the research team will attempt to develop the materials, tools, and techniques needed to extend the operational life of the vehicles, as well as reduce repair costs. By servicing expensive components on an as-needed bases, rather that on an arbitrary schedule, the Marine Corps hopes to save money and increase vehicle availability. If successful, Davis believes the project could play a significant role in extending the life of the vehicles to 2025.
ORNL's strategy of matching lab capabilities with the security-related needs of GSD's sponsors provides focus for investing of a portion of the lab's discretionary R&D funds. The investments enable Global Security to anticipate, as well as respond to, a variety of security challenges. The effort to anticipate these challenges includes GSD's four programmatic sectors—Homeland Security, Defense, the intelligence community and nuclear nonproliferation—which are staffed by experienced personnel who have worked in these sectors and are familiar with their unique culture, lexicon and technology challenges. The familiarity provides ORNL with the ability to match the laboratory's research agenda with a range of security needs from a variety of agencies.
As the GSD's programs expand, efforts to align this growth with ORNL's broader research agenda will remain a priority. Davis says GSD staff work closely with the laboratory's research divisions to develop a comprehensive understanding of emerging technologies or strategic goals that might be of interest to potential sponsors. As a result, when research divisions develop new capabilities, GSD can quickly match them to sponsors' needs, avoiding much of the time lag involved in the development and application of new technologies.
At numerous other laboratories, comparable organizations tend to "own" their researchers rather than attempting to coordinate complicated projects across multiple research groups. In contrast, in the GSD model most staff members serve as conduits between project sponsors and multiple ORNL research organizations. Davis acknowledges that this unique organizational structure requires a greater degree of cooperation. "We cannot dictate to other researchers. We have to work as part of a team."
As a result of this arrangement, ORNL's Global Security organization has found a way to accommodate the expectations of both sponsors and the laboratory, developing what has become one of the nation's premier programs of security technologies.