The world is complex and filled with uncertainty and risk. But at times like this, Andy McIlroy, associate Laboratories director of the Integrated Security Solutions division, finds solace and even inspiration in Sandia’s mission and the people called to carry it out.
“Sometimes it’s easy to focus on the challenges we have and lose sight of all the positive change that is happening,” Andy said.
Global strife creates uncertainty
The list of dangerous spots around the globe only seems to grow with each passing day, which makes the work underway at every Sandia site all the more impactful.
“It is an incredibly challenging global environment right now, which drives home why we have a nuclear deterrent: The world is indeed a very dangerous place,” Andy said.
Andy finds this a sobering reality, but one he is not sure newer Sandians may fully grasp.
“It’s something we haven’t thought about for quite some time,” he said. “Particularly for the two-thirds of the workforce who joined us in the last 10 years, this may be the first time that the reality of how important the deterrent is has come to the fore. That is an awesome responsibility.”
Andy tells his leadership team and new Sandians alike how much our work matters for the nation and therefore how crucial it is for us to deliver on that work — because the nation, as well as large portions of the world we protect, depend upon it.
Everyone is important
Andy knows all too well how every Sandian contributes to our national security mission.
“Everyone is important to the mission. That’s something we don’t mention enough,” he said. “We need folks to construct our new buildings. We need others to develop our workforce. We need people who keep the books straight. We also need the people who clean our bathrooms and make sure that our living spaces are good for us to be in every day. People ask, ‘Am I really important to the national security mission?’ The answer is absolutely, yes. We wouldn’t have someone here if they weren’t important, and every single person is important.”
Andy believes in acknowledging explicitly the role that everybody plays in delivering on the mission.
“At Sandia, the scientists and engineers who come up with a great idea then partner with other people who can realize a product for use in the field,” Andy said. “This step requires an entirely different set of skills, so the two groups have to be brought together in a team framework. Then we need more people to make the product small or use less power. The end result is a very multidisciplinary team that pulls on all aspects of the Labs.”
National impact, global reputation
Andy stresses another aspect of Sandia that benefits every national security mission.
“Open science at the Labs means just that — it is open,” he explained. “We publish it openly. We go to conferences; we talk about our work. The work wins awards, and our people are invited to give talks around the globe about what they and their teams have achieved.”
Andy believes that kind of openness and sharing of data is not just good science, it’s good for national defense.
“Each of us should realize that our adversaries are looking at our work and saying, ‘Wow, that’s impressive. If they’re doing that in the open, what in the world are they doing on the core mission?’” he said. “Our public reputation, which is built by our open-science and energy work, plays a huge role in the psychology of deterrence. The credibility of our laboratory rests in part on our open work.”
But Andy said all that science isn’t just for show.
“Not everything we do has a Sandia Thunderbird on it,” he said. “We should be proud of the work we’re doing. It has real impact and shows up regularly as a deciding capability for the nation. We can — and should — take time to reflect on the awesome responsibility we have and the incredible resource we are for the nation.”
Thinking globally, acting locally
One of Sandia’s newer missions has everything to do with preserving the world for all humankind.
“There’s another global challenge that’s facing us as well, which is climate change,” Andy said. “This is a truly global, existential issue for us. As a national security laboratory, we need to help the nation rise to meet this challenge.”
In the last few years, the Labs has developed a robust climate security strategy, drawing upon work Sandia was already doing in that space. But one of the first acts of that strategy was setting net-zero carbon goals for the Labs’ own sites.
“I think this is in our DNA,” Andy said. “We need to lead with our own technology. From the very beginning, one pillar of the climate security strategy has been to demonstrate technologies at our sites. We need everybody — from our scientists and engineers to our folks in procurement, facilities and legal. The whole team is required to realize the tremendous scale of change we’re looking for here.”
This includes a large-scale solar installation at the California site with photovoltaic solar cells and a large-scale battery backup system.
“We received a grant from DOE and matching funds from the California Energy Commission for a total of about $16 million to build a large battery system in Livermore. In addition to serving research purposes, the backup system will be a practical part of our energy source,” he said. “In Albuquerque, we’re looking at a more diverse strategy because it’s a much larger site.”
Sandia is partnering with the U.S. Air Force to implement alternative-energy systems across Kirtland Air Force Base.
“We’re looking at employing not just the photovoltaics, but also our concentrated solar technology and pushing the envelope of what’s possible,” he said. “It’s important that we eat our own cooking, so to speak. I believe we are excellent cooks and that this will be a gourmet meal.”
Big missions, big stakes
In short, Sandia is taking on the largest, most critical missions on behalf of the nation. Andy is quick to point out how unlikely success on all those fronts would be without the contributions of every Sandian.
“Our team approach gets us from cutting-edge technology to something that can actually be used to improve the security of the nation,” he said. “That’s what we do so well and what many other labs struggle with. They can do the technology and the science. But getting it all the way into the hands of someone who needs it is a real challenge — and we do it time and time again.”
Everyone may not always see the scale of the Labs’ accomplishments, which Andy said is akin to being the inmost doll in a set of nesting dolls.
“Many days, all you see is your own environment. You don’t see the fact that you’re in something bigger,” he said. “The world’s a scary and challenging place right now. At the same time, a lot of good things are happening at the Labs and the division, and sometimes we lose sight of those. We’re building a better and better environment for our folks to work in. We’ve got some super important work to do. We need to go out there and help the nation be safe and secure — and we do so, day after day after day.”