The National Laboratories - Great attractors
January 13, 2009

This past week, the importance of Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility and the 16 other U.S. Department of Energy national laboratories was the subject of discussion.

The dialogue occurred during a meeting of the National Laboratory Directors’ Council with the secretary of energy and his highest-ranking staff. The relationship between the directors and DOE is complex. The directors are employed by a contractor, in my case Jefferson Science Associates, so we are not government employees. But the DOE and the secretary make decisions about which organizations should be the contractors. And the national laboratories constitute, by far, the largest component of capability and capacity to do stuff within DOE. So each needs the other and the lab directors meetings provide an opportunity for direct discussion.

Hanging off the NLDC are three bodies, one comprised of the chief research officers (JLab’s Tony Thomas et al.), one comprised of the chief operating officers (JLab’s Mike Dallas et al.), and one of the chief information officers (JLab’s Roy Whitney et al.) These groups have liaison with DOE at a very practical level and get deeply involved in several areas of policy and policy change. A prime example almost always on the table is that of cybersecurity. This is important from a large number of perspectives, not least from the point of view of maintaining our scientific data pristine and available, and avoiding denial of service for our scientists. There is a strong tension, however, between denying hackers and providing easy access to bona fide researchers. Roy Whitney has chaired the CIO group over the past year and very recently he brokered a desperately needed modification in the wording in a manual about to be applied.

During the course of discussions, the secretary repeatedly expressed his admiration for what we accomplish in the national laboratories. His term is coming to an end, so in many ways he was thanking the directors for their help during his tenure. Later in the day, there was a ceremony with presentations to DOE employees and contractor employees recognizing outstanding service. Those like Christoph Leemann, who had received awards during the year, did not attend, but were listed. Again, the secretary, now in front of a much wider audience, extolled the virtues of the national labs and the talents of their employees. In fact, there is a nice glossy hard-backed book that has just appeared called A Decade of Discovery that provides “recognition of the men and women working in the U.S. Department of Energy’s seventeen national laboratories across the country”; some of our colleagues helped put this together.

Now, I am not a great “Rah! Rah!” personality, but in this case, I heartily concur with the secretary. To me, the DOE national labs are a major asset to the country and to science more broadly. If you were to have asked me as a 21 year-old from England about Harvard or Yale, you might not have received much of a response. But if you had asked me about Brookhaven, for example, you would have found that I had done an undergraduate project to consider replacing the battleship steel in a neutrino beam line there with uranium. The labs are extremely visible across the world. They are great magnets for young scientists from many countries. The best in the world come here to use the superb facilities, like CEBAF at Jefferson Lab, and some stay. And some of those who stay enter society more broadly. Arguably the influx of talent has done much to offset the challenges of making science education in the country attractive and effective.

The national labs - great attractors!