April 29 marks the first anniversary of Tom Hunter’s taking office as Sandia’s 12th president and laboratory director. The Lab News sat down with Tom in his office recently to discuss his first year in that role and get his thoughts on a wide variety of issues, internal and external, facing the Labs. This tradition of an annual Lab News State of the Labs Interview with Sandia’s top official goes back several decades now. This interview was conducted by retiring Lab News Editor Ken Frazier, incoming Lab News editor Bill Murphy, and Lab News staff member Chris Burroughs:
Lab News: It’s been almost a year now since you became the president, and we are curious, how are you enjoying your job as president? Have you been able to enjoy it at all? Or has it just been a lot of hard work and worry?
Tom Hunter: I think enjoyment describes it very well. It is both a privilege and opportunity. It has allowed me to do a number of things that I find to be quite interesting and quite empowering actually. Certainly meeting with the president a couple of times allowed me opportunities that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. And there are forums in which I am able to represent this laboratory that I find truly enjoyable. Of course there is a lot of work to do, but it has been quite enjoyable.
LN: What’s been the most unexpected aspect of the first year as president? Anything surprise you?
Tom: We knew we were in need of fairly significant transformation on many fronts. I think the extent to which we will have to transform the laboratories is something that probably we hadn’t fully anticipated, but it is very reasonable to do. And the complexity and difficulty in doing that is also something that we find ourselves constantly faced with. It’s a bit more than we probably anticipated, but it’s not unreasonable.
LN: We’ll have a chance to talk about that some more if you want. What’s been the most pleasant surprise? Or have there been any?
Tom: The pleasant things have to do almost entirely with the opportunity to represent the people of the laboratory wherever that occurs, whatever forum that is. That can be at the town meetings, engaging the leadership of the DOE or the DoD, working across the state, working with universities across the country. All those things are extremely pleasant. It’s not a big surprise that they were part of this job. I think it’s an important part of what the job should be. The other thing I find extremely pleasant is spending time whenever possible with Sandians at any particular level — staff, managers, directors, vice presidents. It’s a bit of a surprise to me how enjoyable that is, if you can find the time.
Creativity and compliance
LN: Speaking of spending time with Sandians at all levels across the board, there was a report going around — I think it originated in a report for the LLT that you’re probably familiar with — regarding creativity at the Labs. And there was this assertion that creativity isn’t today what is was, say, 30 years ago. There was some discussion back and forth even in our own little group whether that’s right on, not quite fair, or a simplification. What do you think about the state of creativity at the Labs?
Tom: Those are two different things but let me address. This is a very important issue, and I’ve tried in my communications with employees to note that if the nation expects any one thing of us, it is to be creative and objective in the way we approach our work. Is there a difference from several decades ago? No one can speak to that with great clarity, but my sense is that the people are just as creative if not more creative than ever, because there has been quite a lot of emphasis in American education and more enablement of creativity than probably there was 30 years ago. The inherent capability today of people is at least where it was 30 years ago. The difference is that the world is much more complex now. And there are things that we must address today that we didn’t used to have to address with the intensity that we do today. And so that is viewed by some people as taking time away from their being as creative as they would like. I think the question is not only are we as creative but how are we managing our time? Are we getting our time balanced right so there’s creative time? Our goal should be to provide as much creative time, as much creative environment, as we possibly can. We have to deal with the realities and complexities of the day. Do we really work toward simple approaches that allow people to address the topics without consuming so much of their time, so that there is a true creative element there, a creative aspect of their time? It’s a very important balance question at the laboratory and the laboratory of the future.
LN: Related to that is the amount of time that people at all levels have to spend on what you might call compliance-driven requirements. There is a concern that compliance with rules has become much more of a burden than it ever used to be and that, in a sense, we may be losing our identity as a very creative national lab because of this compliance culture that seems to be pushed on us from multiple agencies and sources. What do you think about that and how do you deal with that problem?
Tom: Yes, in fact this question comes up a lot in the forums we have with the staff. The question really is in what environment are we living and what do we make of that environment? We have found ourselves in the position of needing to increase our attention to a lot of matters. What you described as compliance-related things do need our attention. We then need to sort out how they can be done in the most practical, simple way. If there’s one message I would give to all of the staff, it is that it’s our role to figure out how to do these things to the extent that we should and fulfill that role. We can define how simple, straightforward, and practical it is to do these things and how much time it will take.
LN: “Our” and “we” meaning —?
Tom: The Sandians — for us as an institution, for Sandia as a laboratory. As opposed to the compliance framework, which you described and which was imposed by others that we have to accept. The real opportunity for us that we need to capitalize on far more than we have is to define our own fate in these matters. And we have to ask whether we create within Sandia the incentive to make things much more complicated. Have we in the last decade or so evolved in such a way that we have made things extremely complicated? And so what start as initial requirements, what you call compliance requirements, actually get turned into very complex things that dominate a lot of the time of the people who have to do that. We’ve got to take our own destiny in our hands and define how things should be done. We have to find ways to do that as simply and practically as possible. I know it’s an issue on everyone’s mind.
LN: Would you see NNSA and the NNSA Sandia Site Office as a partner with us in realizing that? For lack of a better way to express it, are they on our side in trying to get to where you’re talking about?
Tom: I’m convinced that is the role they want us to provide, that NNSA wants us to define our own way of achieving these goals. Our own way of defining how our work is done. Our own way of assessing our work. Our own way of deciding what our safety bases are. They want us to do that. And they want to stand back and say we think your systems to do this are fine, so we then don’t have to be in the middle of engaging at a compliance day-to-day level. I’m confident that is true because I’ve had those conversations with them. Now to play that out in practice is the real challenge for us and for them.
Safety and ES&H
LN: In regard to compliance, how is Sandia doing in terms of safety, which has been so emphasized over the past year? And what are Sandia’s major ES&H concerns and what should we be doing better?
Tom: Well, safety is one of those fundamental parts of operational excellence. We define the laboratory in terms of three major vectors: nuclear weapon transformation, supporting broader national security, and a laboratory that manages in an excellent way — operational excellence. Safety is certainly a major part of that third piece and one that we’ve had to focus on quite a lot. We needed to put foundations and systems in place that would allow us to deploy a safety program across the laboratory, one that was doable and met the expectations of our customers, particularly our SSO customers. That framework was not in place. We’ve had to work very hard to get that framework in place. Now we have a kind of enterprise framework for how our ES&H program will fold out. We have a best-in-class plan to describe how we will get to a higher level of safety engagement. And we have strengthened a few key areas according to that final rating. First, we have gotten an extremely significant amount of what I call leadership engagement. We made safety and the safety environment an important part of all the leadership culture, the vice presidents, directors, and senior managers in particular. We’ve tried to make it clear that safety is part of the leadership role at the laboratory. Then given that foundation, we’ve tried to deploy some specific things like self-assessments that rolled out across the laboratory. We’ve been rolling out a uniform notification program and we are going to be rolling out things in other areas like work controls. The secret is to do that, as we discussed earlier, so it is simple and clear and consistent — so it enables us to keep this creative environment that we have to maintain. How are we doing that overall? The foundation is coming together nicely. It needed to be given real emphasis. We are making really good progress in our significant incidents. Our days-away case rate is going down. We still have a large number of recordable incidents. We have to create a culture where people are aware of their own work and their own environment, including the people around them. And so in deployment and in results we have some improvements before we can achieve best in class. But the foundation’s doing nicely and the deployment is beginning. The people are to be commended for all the work they’ve done.
LN: When John Shaw [then DOE’s assistant secretary for ES&H] was here we had an opportunity to spend some time with him. I asked him how Sandia is doing in terms of safety as compared to other laboratories. He said we’re right in the middle; we’re not bad and we’re not perfect, we’re right in the middle.
Tom: That’s correct. It depends on which metrics you use. If you use recordables as a measure, which I don’t think is always the right measure, we are pretty much right with everyone else. If we look at progress made on certain things like the more serious incidents, we are actually making real progress compared to the other laboratories. So I think that’s a good characterization. But I would like to make sure the people of the laboratory know how important it is that we do this and in a way that enables creativity. And that we’re trying very hard to have both the safest of environments and the most respect for our workforce and enable them to be as productive as possible.
LN: I want to change the subject somewhat, to an area you addressed during the employee dialog session in late February. You noted that DOE has mandated that Sandia and other labs normalize benefits within industry standards. That can be a little scary sounding because people hear it as reducing benefits, including health coverage, and increasing costs, or both. Given that Sandia can’t offer its employees all the perks that a private sector company can — profit sharing, stock options, signing bonuses come to mind — why can’t the Labs use such things as additional health care coverage, better pension packages, and more vacation time, for example, as a way to balance benefits against the many financial benefits that a private sector company can offer? After all, if we normalize health care benefits by reducing them while ignoring huge potential rewards of stock options or profit sharing, are we really normalizing at all?
Tom: It’s very clear that under our contract DOE expects us to have a benefit structure that has understandable and reasonable relationships with those in our peer community — in both universities and industry. That means we have to look at each and every one of our benefits and ask the questions: How does it compare to these norms? Where would we like to go and where would DOE support us going? DOE would argue that overall we have a package that when added up is above industry norm. And we’re going to have to propose modifications to the plan that can get us close to that norm. That’s the environment we find ourselves in. At the same time, though, I think we do exactly what you say when we talk about the opportunities we can provide for people at Sandia. We argue that we have to have compensation that is market-based for our research and development type market structure and that allows us to be at the better end of the compensation analysis across the country. We also argue that we have other opportunities — support for employees internally, learning, the education opportunities, and others — so that with all things considered together as a package we offer the kind of environment where the best people can come and do as well from all standpoints as they would had they gone to a university or industry. That’s the core of our argument. It doesn’t change the fact that when I look at a specific set of benefits, we have to go back in and do some normalization. And we are doing that. We’re working with DOE to propose things that will allow us to be closer to the norms.
LN: What it really comes down to is, is the package going to remain compelling enough over time to retain, to recruit, the very best people, which is what Sandia has always done? Do you feel confident that within the parameters DOE is asking us to work within that down the road we can continue to say that the very best people still will choose to come here?
Tom: Of course that is our primary goal — to be a place of choice for the nation’s best, particularly those in science and engineering — and DOE shares that goal. They do share the reality of what’s happening in the marketplace. The reason I can answer yes to that question that we could retain the best people is because the broad trends in the marketplace are such that both industry and universities are reducing their historical support for the workforce into different forms. That means we will continue to be attractive and competitive in that regard. But it doesn’t mean that we will be able to retain ours in exactly the form they’ve always been.
LN: One specific that you mentioned at the State of the Labs talks — you said perhaps by 2010 we may have to resume contributions into the pension plan. I assume you meant employee contributions, or did you mean company contributions, or did you mean both?
Tom: I didn’t say. Because we haven’t determined that. But I think it’s important to note that historically neither the company nor the employees have made contributions. Employees have not made contributions since 1974, and the company has not made contributions since 1986. What we know is as we look at the funding basis for our defined benefit plan today and project the cost in about 2011, we project that we’ll have to have some contribution of some reasonable size. Whether that’s done by the employees or by the company we’ll have to decide. We haven’t sorted that out yet. We just know contributions will have to be made. But it is four years away in the current projections.
LN: Another thing you brought up was outsourcing. You talked about industry finding opportunities to outsource even what are traditional high-level professional services. You mentioned that the Labs has to look at all of the things that are out there, the whole suite of options that industry is turning to. Could you go into a little bit more into where outsourcing might fit into the Labs?
Tom: Outsourcing per se is not the issue for Sandia. The issue for Sandia is how to provide the most benefit to the government with the most efficiency and the most reasonable cost. So the way we look at all those questions is to ask what is the right role for us and how to deliver it in the most efficient way. In the national security business, for our core work, it is almost antithetical to think of outsourcing in a major way because we are at our core a national security laboratory. Our role is unique to our nation’s government. We have some very important and unique relationships with the government. So it’s very unlikely when you get to our core work, unlike almost every commercial business, that we would have to address outsourcing for that work. Then it simply boils down to how to do everything else that we do in the most efficient and cost-effective manner. We have looked at our cost projections over the next several years and asked how do we provide the right kind of place, the right kind of employees, and the right kind of support for our customers. And we haven’t rejected any means of achieving that nor have we decided on any particular means of achieving that. But we’ve given the challenge to our cost team to try to deal with those costs.
LN: Is it ultimately purely a cost-driven call?
Tom: It’s probably better to say that it’s cost in the broadest sense. That certainly includes financial cost, and we will be dealing with cost-balancing questions in the future. But it’s also in terms of cost to our time. We have to ask, what things are we really good at? You want to have those key capabilities and you want to make sure you do those well. If you’re ever out of balance in those capabilities, there’s a broader cost in involvement of the leadership, involvement of time. But it’s largely cost, with a big piece of that being financial cost.
LN: I’d like to return to something you said at the beginning and that’s the transformation of the laboratory. You said that was one of the things that has proved more difficult than you had expected. What are you referring to specifically?
Tom: The transformation of the laboratory is more complex than we thought because it has to be more foundational. We have to go back and look at how the laboratory is really structured and functioning as an enterprise. And then how should it be functioning if we look ahead a couple decades and think of ourselves as leaders in enterprise management? And so the deep foundational part is something we have to address more fundamentally than we thought. That means things like our Integrated Laboratory Management System, which was a choice we made to respond to pulling the laboratory all together and a condition under our contract. It has to be done with great care. There have to be very well-planned approaches to defining and structuring an enterprise. That then will tell you how all the pieces fit together, how they should fit together. But at the same time there are other dimensions. There’s the people dimension because we have a relatively new leadership team. We have different people in new and different roles. We created some new roles. These changes don’t happen overnight. There’s a culture dimension that has to be addressed. The biggest culture dimension I have seen is that we really are one laboratory, as opposed to many who identify with a piece of the laboratory rather than the laboratory as a whole. Having an integrated enterprise requires this cultural identification with the laboratory as a whole — as opposed to an organization, as opposed to a business sector, for example. So, that’s what we’re trying to encourage at the higher level and that’s what makes it complicated because that is a change in people’s thinking, into broader enterprise thinking.
LN: Is the reorganization that you instituted back in early summer last year moving us in that direction?
Tom: It was designed to move us in that direction, exactly.
LN: Is your sense that we are actually making progress in this area?
Tom: I see good progress. The area of progress most observable to me is the role we’ve asked of our vice presidents. In the way we restructured we tasked our vice presidents, who have large organizations to look after, to simultaneously look at and deal with cross-laboratory issues. They have to think as laboratory citizens and deal with integrated issues for the laboratory. And that’s been very positive. People have really risen to that challenge. They have taken on roles that make a difference for the laboratory as a whole, not just their organizations.
LN: In dealing with California there is sometimes the perception that they think of themselves as a whole separate laboratory. Is there anything that can be done to change that perception?
Tom: My perception is not that California is a separate laboratory. It is a separate location, which has its own unique needs and roles that you would expect when you have almost a thousand people at a separate location. But it is an integral part of this laboratory as well. I think what you see is a natural evolution when you have geographical distance in between. And having lived there and worked at the site for some time I see that it is important to have this sense of identity when you’re in California that allows you to think you are accountable for the whole site. When you think about people and operations and in some cases programs, it’s important to have some coherence at that location because it has its own identity at the site. At the same time as we look at our big programs, we’ve got to see California as a piece of that, and I think we’re starting to do that. Mim has responsibility for the SMU dealing with homeland security, which is really about homeland security and force protection and is supported by organizations across the entire laboratory. We have a mixing of roles to allow more of that. So I don’t think the perspective of a different laboratory is the right one. I think there’s a bit of a different identity for people who work in different places. And I think we need to do more to take advantage of the strengths of all of our sites and particularly the one in California.
LN: The California site just observed its 50th anniversary. You were out there, and a lot of glowing words were said about it, and we devoted eight pages to it in the Lab News. Is its future secure, its role secure?
Tom: The California site has a very robust role in our support for the weapons program. There is a significant weapons program role in California because Lawrence Livermore still has a major commitment to the systems in the stockpile and the evolution of the stockpile as we go forward. In that key ingredient I don’t expect to see changes in the near term. I think that will remain the case. There’ll be so-called California weapons systems, and our support for those will maintain. It will be necessary to look at our other programs and ask how can we take advantage of the strengths and give California more, and we’re doing that. Al Romig is working in large part with Mim to make sure it happens. And of course we have a big role in helping keep the nation quite secure, and California plays a very important part of that role.
LN: We haven’t talked about our core mission, nuclear weapons. I’d like to get into that and give you an opportunity to express where we are right now. What about current programs? How does it all fit in with the national weapons complex?
Tom: I’ll comment on it from my role as Lab Director. For the actual specific sense of strategy for nuclear weapons [Deputy Director] Joan [Woodard] is the person who represents us. [Editor’s note: An interview with Joan on the weapons program is scheduled next month.] I can tell you what my perspective is as the Lab Director and that is that these are very exciting times of transformation for the nuclear weapons program. Probably what we’re doing in these few years will set the framework for what the nuclear complex is for several decades. So it couldn’t be more important for us or for the nation. What that means is that the stockpile will be evaluated in its role in deterrence, in its role in national security. Out of it will come some transformations in the stockpile itself. An example will be the current thinking around RRW [reliable replacement warhead], which is a transformational agent in and of itself. And those will redefine or redevelop the nature or the number of systems and the size of the stockpile. The one thing that seems reasonably clear about that is that we’ll have to have a different kind of stockpile as we look ahead several decades. At least it will be different in part from what we have today. And we’ll see how much different it is as these evaluations move forward. Probably the second thing is the complex itself and how the roles around the complex are being addressed. People are looking at how you define roles and how you look for ways to integrate activities and particularly things that deal with our security costs so they can be done more efficiently. I think that in the short term over the next few years you’ll be seeing some suggested ideas on ways to look at roles and functions across the complex to streamline them a bit. And that leaves the third area, which is how is the complex managed and how does it work as an enterprise. I think you’re going to see a lot of evidence of that where NNSA takes a very deliberate role in asking how the enterprise should function, how we use our contracts to incentivize, the role of science, the role of production, and the role of taking care of the stockpile. I think you’ll see all three of those things — the stockpile, the complex, and the way the complex is managed — addressed fairly significantly by DOE/NNSA, with strong support from the labs and particularly strong support from Sandia.
LN: Speaking of reorganizing and restructuring and rethinking the complex, do you see in the foreseeable future a continued need for three weapons labs? You can tie that in to the RRW and the competition that Ambassador Brooks talked about with Lawrence Livemore and our California site competing with LANL and Sandia/New Mexico in doing some design stuff. Once the design is established and you’ve got an RRW program in place, will it take two different [physics] labs to continue to manage that?
Tom: I think that will be an open question for a while. In the absence of nuclear testing we have to sort out how you can achieve confidence around what we originally dealt with by testing. And how you create the capabilities to be sure you can ensure that confidence. There are many people who feel strongly that that confidence can be derived largely from competition between two nuclear explosive package laboratories. That’s certainly a way to achieve that, and it has worked well for the country. We’ll probably not see an immediate impact on that; it’s going to be an open question for a while. The bigger question is going to be what capabilities do we really need? How do they fit with the affordability of the complex? And how do we assure and maintain that confidence when we can’t have testing of nuclear weapons?
LN: A few weeks ago Richard Garwin spoke here in Albuquerque and expressed the concern that a move to RRW is going to be a move toward all-out nuclear testing. He seems to think that going down the path of RRW will inevitably lead to a demand for all-out nuclear testing.
Tom: I’ve heard those arguments. They are not ones that I subscribe to. The intent of RRW is to provide for more confidence in the absence of testing. I don’t see anybody wavering about that. It would violate the whole premise of RRW if it did lead in the direction of testing. But I have confidence in the people who make those judgments about what changes they could make in the weapons to allow them to be more robust — and still make sure that it doesn’t lead us down the road to requiring a test. I’m glad you’ve raised the issue because it’s sure something that has to be looked at very carefully and cautiously.
LN: One thing regarding evaluation of the stockpile. We just did a story on the Integrated Stockpile Evaluation Program. Can you comment on that? It’s about changes in the way they’ve done things.
Tom: I can comment on it. It’s certainly more appropriate to have Joan comment about those things. What we know is that the stockpile is getting smaller in size and it’s also getting older. Because of that you have to be sure you have a robust surveillance program that allows you to rethink how you make those judgments every year. I believe the new integrated surveillance program that has been proposed certainly has the right kind of thinking behind how you deal with those conditions of essentially fewer and older weapons. The careful deployment of the right kind of annual gathering of information is in fact the basis in which I put forth my annual letter on the reassessment of the stockpile. I have confidence that it’s going to move along. I particularly like the idea that we’re thinking about it deeply and asking what could we be doing in the time of a different evolution of the stockpile. It is a very important job.
Budgets, stability, and hiring
LN: We haven’t talked about budgets at all yet or our budget situation. You’ve indicated that you’re confident that we could maintain size and stability and budget even at a time of perhaps declining weapons program budgets by an increase in Work For Others. Is that the case? Are you still confident about that and what do you see as the budget situation both in the short term and long term?
Tom: First to clarify terms — when we talk about nuclear weapons and then we talk about the other part of the laboratory, only a small part of that is Work For Others. The work outside nuclear weapons includes a lot of work for the DOE. So DOE is still about two-thirds of all the work in the laboratory. Today we know the president’s budget for Fiscal ’07, and we of course know what the deployment has been for ’06. And we know generally what the forecast is for the nuclear weapons program as we go further in time. The nuclear weapons program is not a growing program. It has grown significantly in the last five years, but it is not growing over the next five years. What that means is what I call a relatively flat budget for nuclear weapons at this laboratory. There could be dips of a few percent, dips that increase as we go forward in time — but generally fairly flat. It will mean that we will have to look at some redeployment of resources in people into other customers. That’s been our plan all along. At the same time we’re going to have to reduce costs as we look across the benefits pictures, we look across all the pictures of the cost future of the laboratory. We’re going to have to have a compound approach to reducing costs and achieving an agility of people so we can match up the people with the customers as we transition into a changing nuclear weapons program and a growth in programs other than nuclear weapons. We do anticipate a growth in places other than nuclear weapons. And that is our baseline plan. All indications today are that we will remain a relatively stable laboratory, and that is our planning base.
A key part of a stable laboratory is to have a robust hiring program. Hiring this year is intended to be roughly the same size as the attrition for the laboratory. That is our goal as we move forward — to have a robust hiring program every year. From all of the projections that we see we’re going to be able to achieve that. It will require a lot of work in all three areas — in Joan’s area to be sure that the nuclear weapons role that we have is the right one and researched properly. It will require Al Romig to be sure we are aggressive and working hard to establish the relationship with new customers that will allow us to fulfill that growth. It’s going to require John Stichman working very hard to deal with the question of the overall cost of the laboratory and the efficiency of the laboratory. The balance in those three things I think is the strategy that will allow us to keep the laboratory stable. That’s certainly what our planning is.
LN: So if you talk about robust hiring programs, are you talking about 500 people a year or do you have any kind of figures in mind?
Tom: We use attrition as the benchmark. I’m not sure what the future years’ attrition rates are projected to be, but today it’s a little less than 400 people. So as we think about robust, it’s in the range of the attrition to the laboratory, which is around 400 people. Now, over the last several years we’ve hired more than that. In our future projection we’re going to hire at about that level.
LN: Are there certain areas of recruiting that are a lot more important than others? What would be the emphasis? And has that changed?
Tom: The emphasis will continue to be based on the capabilities that we’re trying to maintain or project in the future. And for us that’s going to be an increasing emphasis on our key forward-going capabilities. If you look at our work and investments in microsystems, we need to make sure we have the right kind of staff to fully take advantage of those investments. If you look at our work broadly in information systems — I would include in that high-performance computing and modeling and simulation — that is clearly a key forward-going capability in which we will maintain aggressive hiring, because we gear ourselves as national and world leaders in that regard. We’ll have to maintain the right workforce and the workforce additions to allow us to achieve that.
LN: Is DOE going to continue to be very supportive, funding-wise, of keeping us at of the cutting edge in information technology? Right now we have wonderful infrastructure to offer to recruits who want to get their hands on Sandia’s hardware. Is that going to continue to be the case?
Tom: That’s a very good question. Let’s talk about the computing side of the information. If you look at the fundamental role that modeling and simulation has in how engineering is done, the way in which creativity is achieved, the way in which innovation is achieved, the trend in this century is clearly going to be for a significantly expanded role of modeling and simulation.
In a much more fundamental way modeling and simulation has always been thought of as an enabler of the normal processes and understandings. In the future I think it will be a method of discovery and a method of innovation even in and of itself.
DOE has made significant investments at all the laboratories in this. I think that’s going to be progressively harder to do in the future, because there are significant budget pressures on all the capabilities and I think it’s going to be more difficult to provide the kind of support for the nuclear weapons program that we have now.
However, our other customers benefit enormously from this high-performance computing and modeling and simulation capability. Our other customers, I believe, care deeply about our and the other laboratories’ preeminent role in modeling and simulation. I think our other customers will see that there’s opportunity to make investments. We can make investments as an institution, like we did with the Thunderbird, to put us ever nearer the forefront.
Thunderbird, other innovative R&D
LN: Is Thunderbird a model for where we might be going in supercomputing? That was a really innovative program across the board.
Tom: The Thunderbird is, of course, a capacity computing engine, and one that is innovative on several fronts. First, it’s innovative in the way it partners with suppliers to get a system that is very flexible and works very well. Second, it’s innovative in the way the laboratory was able to put together resources to get it. And then it’s innovative in its cost-effectiveness to provide significant capacity at a very reasonable cost. It shows the creativity of our people. But you asked a question about future support. I think it’s going to be more challenging in the nuclear weapons area, but I think our other customers will see the advantage in Sandia’s continued leadership role in this area, and I see that the laboratory can make institutional investments that will allow that leadership to continue.
LN: What about other areas of R&D at the labs? What about nanotechnology and biotechnology? How do you see their role?
Tom: Of course, the nanotechnology frontier is very significant, and our progress has been amazing. The foundation of the work we do in micro-systems and in evolving material science is now being addressed by this approach to nanotechnology, basically the atom scale, of trying to understand and evolve materials and functions of material. The quality of our nanotechnology work has led to a vote of confidence in us by DOE, enabling us to build the CINT [Center for Integrated Nanotechnology] facility and have national attention be drawn to us as a user facility and as a place of excellence around nanotechnology. That’s a very significant achievement for the laboratory. We’ve built the facility on-time and on-budget, and it’s now available as a user facility. That is an enormous statement about what our laboratory can accomplish. I see this as an important foundation for all the work that we do. We will also have revolutionary impact in many areas of science and technology across the country. Because of this CINT experience and because of the way we work with Los Alamos, New Mexico is now thought of in a leadership position. I think it’s very important [to this community] and very important to the future of the laboratory.
Biology and biotechnology was your second question. It turns out as you deal with national security you almost have to address today the question of what is the nation’s security situation with respect to biological threats.
That means we have to maintain a role of understanding, of deep insight, into what it means to give confidence to our nation that threats from biological sources are understood and can be dealt with. We’re going to have to deal with it in a whole spectrum of activity. NISAC [National Infrastructure Simulation and Analysis Center], again with Los Alamos, is going to have to capture the broad implications of what might happen in the face of biological threats. At the same time, we’re going to have to go all the way down to the molecular level to gain new insights into fundamental things like immunity and how the body really works, and how cells work and pass information and materials back and forth. That is a natural application of work in modeling and simulation and computing, for example. So we’re going to have to span that whole spectrum, but we’re going to have to do it in a way in which we have a strong engagement with people in the core of the biological community. And that’s what we’ve done. It’s been a strategy of partnerships, a strategy of applying our capabilities, particularly modeling and simulation, where they make sense. That, to me, constitutes a nice spectrum of engagement, and I expect to see that continue.
Pulsed power accomplishments outstanding
LN: Are there any other areas of R&D that you’d like to say anything about?
Tom: There is one other that we ought to mention and that is one in which the future is evolving. That is our role in pulsed power and to some extent fusion.
Our accomplishments in pulsed power have been just outstanding. They include the work we’re doing not only in the fusion-related area, but the significant work we’ve done in looking at the character of materials. That has really captured a large amount of attention in the nation’s scientific community.
We need for that to continue because it’s important to the nation’s science core that someone’s able to do that. It’s important to have some alternatives in areas like energy where we look at different ways of achieving fusion energy. It is very important to the weapons program to have that capability available to people throughout the weapons program. We’re making a significant investment right now in upgrading [our Z machine] in the near term into a much greater capacity. It’s the longer term that we need to spend more time addressing: How we maintain the role and the prominence and the creativity shown by the people at Sandia who demonstrated all these new techniques. In fact, to refer back to one of your very first questions, if you look at examples of creativity and how we’ve applied modern techniques to resolving age-old problems, our work in pulsed power is one of the examples of explicit and enormous creativity.
Looking at the future
LN: Looking ahead to the future, how do you see the Labs 10 to 20 years down the line?
Tom: You always have to look at your vision for what you’d like to see and have happen and what events will shape that. One thing we see quite clearly is the complexity and challenge of the national security situation. It will span everything from energy supplies to nuclear weapons deterrent. The nation over the next decade is clearly going to have significant needs in providing some assurance to our people that the nation is in fact secure.
We now see much of that spectrum that we hadn’t seen before, and that means that the need for technology and for scientific understanding will be more intense over this next decade than it has probably been historically, because it is more complex. So, in my mind, the need for the laboratories is going to be ever more clear in the eyes of the country. The need for the results that can come from the laboratories will be ever more clear.
At the same time there are pressures the nation is facing with respect to economics. The growing pressure on the federal budget, the current federal deficit, the growing pressures of the aging workforce, and the growing cost of medical care — all those things are going to put us into a different financial situation than we probably have seen for the last several decades.
The need is going to be clearly there, the pressures — particularly financial — are going to be there. And then the world situation . . . My hope for the world situation is that we have a period of stability that is maintained by a relative economic balance across the countries, but also by the fact that deterrence is working and there’s no major disruption in the geopolitical framework. So, the need will be clear, the pressure will be great.
I think what matters about the future of the laboratories is this: Are we — and are we perceived to be — places of unique excellence for science and technology? And then, do we achieve that excellence in such a way that there’s unquestioned value about the role of the laboratories? Those are the issues that convince me we have to move this laboratory to focus on providing that unquestioned value in a way that the cost is viewed as more than worth it.
I think that will mean a laboratory with clear capabilities that are perceived to be world-class. It means a workforce that is viewed to be the envy of any research establishment anywhere. It means an operating environment where we pull together this exquisite balance between creativity and making sure everything performs and operates in an excellent way. The reason I feel strongly about that is, as you heard from almost every sector, and as you saw in the last opportunity I had to meet with the president [during a national Town Hall meeting on US competitiveness at Intel in Rio Rancho], we did talk about the future of science and engineering. The nation, the president, expects that of us, expects us to be that place of unique excellence.
And so we’d better chart the way for this renaissance in science and engineering and the education system that goes with it. We’ve got to be — and perceived to be — leaders in that renaissance. We must be seen as the people who are leading the effort to ensure that the nation remains in every way foremost in the application of science and engineering to support our economy and our relation to world economy.
So I see the role of the laboratories really as pivotal at this time because we’ve got to make that transition. We have to be the example of that transition. We’ve got to be out there leading this transition.
LN: We’ve covered all the ground we intended but I wanted to give you the opportunity to add anything else.
Tom: First, I think it’s important for everyone in the laboratories to know that this is a time when our role in the country is one of utmost importance — and that’s a perspective shared by people from all over. Second, we know the transformation to providing maximum benefit to the country is going to be difficult. It’s going to provide us a lot of challenges. We don’t know or understand all the dimensions of that transformation; we’re trying to learn as much as we can about it. As we move forward with this transformation, communications like we have via the Lab News and communications we have with the staff are going to be more important than ever.
The goal of the transformation is to assure that people are maximally creative and supported and recognized in all that they do.
So we need to continue to work toward better communication, better understanding on everybody’s part, of how we can approach this in the best possible way. I personally take advantage of every opportunity I can to learn more about how this transformation is affecting the laboratory and the people of the laboratory and to try get it framed in such a way that’s enduring and enriching for everybody who’s here.