At science, he's a natural; Retiring J-Lab leader discusses red tape and the pursuit of knowledge (Inside Business)

At science, he's a natural

Retiring J-Lab leader discusses red tape and the pursuit of knowledge

As he prepared to be photographed, Christoph Leemann admitted he's not naturally photogenic as far as posed smiling goes.

And as director of the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility, better known in Hampton Roads as the Jefferson Lab, Leemann is not used to interviews in which his career and opinions are the focus of discussion.

His scientist instincts kick in when he ponders answers for certain topics. He often says that without evidence or calculations, he doesn't want to just dish out his opinion. Typical scientist.

But when you ask Leemann, who recently announced his intention to retire after more than six years as director and nearly 22 years at the Newport News facility, about the work the scientists do at the nuclear physics lab, his eyes grow large with excitement and a more natural grin dons his face.

The end of his tenure awaits the selection of his successor by a search committee. With that end in sight, Leemann recently looked back on the beginnings of Jefferson Lab, its future and the role that fundamental sciences play in society.

Growing up in Basel, Switzerland, Leemann, 68, said many of his generation weren't interested in engineering until the Soviet Union started the space race.

"We were influenced by Sputnik," he said. "That opened a whole new outlook on life and the world."

He knew cool engineers design fighter jets. But he found out others design the bolts for those fighter jets. Leemann dreamed of the former but was warned that the latter was more likely. Instead he chose to design and build subatomic particle accelerators and search for the building blocks of matter and life as we know it.

Leemann came to the U.S. in 1970 and spent 15 years in the San Francisco Bay area at a nuclear physics facility. He then had the opportunity to help build an accelerator from scratch. The catch was it was in a place called Newport News.

"For some reason I knew Newport News existed," Leemann said.

Jefferson Avenue in Newport News in 1985 looked different than it does today.

"It was a green site," Leemann said.

On site at the Jefferson Lab in 1985 were about 20 to 30 people and a couple of so-called buildings, Leemann said, adding, "That depends on how big a shack you call a building."

Leemann and team went to work building the accelerator, a job that took 10 years and $600 million. Today he oversees a facility with more than 750 people.

"The accelerator has been mostly my baby," he said. "Looking back, the machine we built has performed better than we expected and the physics that has emerged was more interesting than we thought."

As he talked about the scientific discoveries made by his baby, Leemann's eyes once again grew wide.

He talked about quarks and gluons and how the definition of fundamental matter has changed.

"A machine like ours is basically a microscope to look into matter," he said. "The desire is to develop quantitative descriptions of how matter is built up. Whether you can make money from any of this of course is a different story."

And where money comes into play at Jefferson Lab, so does politics.

The facility is funded by the Department of Energy's Office of Science, which devotes $4 billion a year to scientific research.

The future of Jefferson Lab depends on getting the necessary share of that budget, a task Leemann said is becoming increasingly difficult.

"Funding for science is very competitive," he said. "The rules are relatively simple; you better make a good case as to why your enterprise is world-class."

Making that case is something Leemann must do before he leaves. "I wanted to see the upgrade started well before I left."

Jefferson Lab is working on securing the funds for the second phase of a $300 million upgrade to the accelerator facility.

"We are in the early stages of a project to double the energy of our machine," Leemann said.

Beyond the upgrade, Leemann said there are hopes to build an electron ion collider at the lab. That device smashes electrons to study their composition and would be a logical extension of what the lab does today, he said.

"For our dreams to come true, the American Competitiveness Initiative has to be sustained for the next 10 years. That's not automatically a given."

One speed bump to progress in the nation's research labs, Leemann said, is red tape. "How long it takes to get anything done. That's a trend that is increasing."

While working in California, he recalled, he came across a copy of a proposal from the 1940s or 1950s that was written to secure funding to build an accelerator. It was one page.

He then pointed to a book case in his office containing dozens of two-inch three-ring binders dealing with Jefferson Lab's upgrade.

"We started talking about that upgrade in 1995," he said.

From the beginning of his career to the present, there's been a global shift when it comes to political red tape. Straight out of college, Leemann was told the U.S. was the place to conduct research.

"Basically their advice was, go west young man," he said. "If you don't want to bother with red tape, go to the States."

Certain politicians want to see more practical, immediate results. Progress in nuclear physics does not satisfy those seeking instant gratification. Many politicians, Leemann said, believe that "if we spend money, we ought to see something for it."

To realize the profit of such science, one must look deeper.

"There is a very big return from basic science in its totality," he said.

But he is confident that the pursuit of this type of knowledge has a strong foundation within the human race as a whole.

"The cultural pursuit of knowledge is something we have always done," he said. "The benefits of knowledge are still relatively convincing."

But like many in America, Leemann wonders whether America is losing ground in its pursuit of that knowledge.

"The rest of the world is learning. The size of the rest of the world that can play has grown bigger."

The leaders in high-energy physics are in Europe, Leemann said, but history shows that is not necessarily a bad thing for the U.S. He is living proof. Looking at scientists from his generation, he said "the U.S. has profited from the immigration of foreign scientists."

The goal in the U.S. should be to attract young students to the fundamental science just as his generation was drawn by Sputnik.

"Science education at our schools is not good," he said. "For some reason the job of engineer is the epitome of geek and nerdiness."

As for his retirement, Leemann said he is stepping down largely because of age. He'll be 69 in January. He doesn't necessarily enjoy dishing out clichés about what he will do with his time.

"I want to do a few other things. Everybody who retires tells you these things."

He did admit one passion he might entertain: "Somewhere in the next three years I'm going to buy myself a boat."

When Leemann does leave Jefferson Lab, he will do so with a single regret, a regret that plagues most scientists: "To me it's frustrating and scary how little I know."