Thomas Zacharia
Thomas Zacharia (hi-res image)

August 16, 2017

As I assume the responsibilities of director at ORNL, this is something I could have neither envisioned nor fully appreciated when I arrived as a postdoctoral fellow in 1987. –

I was recruited at a conference in Gatlinburg by Corporate Fellow Emeritus Stan David, then a group leader in the former Metals and Ceramics Division. It wasn't until I arrived at the Lab, however, that I recognized the privilege of working with ORNL’s accomplished staff and understood the potential available at a national laboratory.

In my case, wise mentors and managers encouraged new ideas, which meant the pursuit of new funding, which enabled the rapid growth of our computing capabilities. At different scales, the same story can be told across the Lab throughout its history: Incredibly smart people supporting one another, identifying important problems, pursuing creative solutions and allowing the Lab to explore compelling ideas from materials to neutrons to nuclear to life sciences and clean energy, applying breakthroughs in fundamental science to energy technologies, national security, medicine and industry.

We are part of a remarkable story that began when there was truly an existential crisis, when without success there would have been no tomorrow. National missions have driven our work ever since, and we are uniquely positioned to take on the most important and difficult challenges today. My goal is for ORNL to be the premier research institution in the world, translating innovative breakthroughs that will secure our nation’s energy future and mitigate national security threats. 

We can only achieve that goal together as a research community energized by a desire to lead. It is my commitment to support the pursuit of excellence throughout the Laboratory.

I will be talking about new ways ORNL will enable world-leading science and innovation. Our group leaders, for instance, have been thinking creatively about how to develop and mentor staff. The goal is to attract and retain the best and brightest, raise our expectations, enhance collaboration and ensure an exemplary environment that maximizes productive time. ORNL research staff should always aspire to be the best in their fields.

I have pledged a relentless pursuit of institutional effectiveness. This means setting the right expectations on our cost of doing business, discretionary investments in both science and facilities, and organizational structure. We say we deliver the most powerful scientific tools and advanced facilities to solve the nation’s most challenging problems – which is absolutely true. We will apply the same passion and energy that brought us these capabilities to continued leadership in safe, efficient and effective Laboratory operations. The successes I've been privileged to enjoy as a scientist and scientific leader would not have been possible without the excellence of our technicians, craft workers and other support staff, who are all part of our research community. I have told colleagues many times, if you can imagine something that may help your research, ORNL staff will find it, procure it or figure out a way to make it.

At the moment, we face uncertainty about funding and programs. We are making the case for the importance of our work. We also know the long-term solution is always to effectively serve national priorities. I have had the good fortune to spend time with new Energy Secretary Rick Perry as he has consistently emphasized areas where ORNL can play a critical role, such as high-performance computing, grid security, nuclear energy, advanced manufacturing and national security. Our main sponsor, the DOE Office of Science, recognizes that 23 of DOE's 24 “core capabilities” reside at ORNL, from accelerator science to systems engineering. The quality of our work across a diverse portfolio is our best argument for sustained funding in these areas.