Strategic Priority No. 6

By Susan Seestrom, Chief Research Officer and Associate Labs Director for Advanced Science & Technology

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Visionary research and engineering for future national security challenges

Susan Seestrom
Susan Seestrom, Chief Research Officer and Associate Labs Director for Advanced Science & Technology

Sandia is unique in the national laboratories complex for our ability to combine foundational science and science-based engineering to solve national security challenges. We thrive in Pasteur’s Quadrant, the term writer Donald Stokes coined for use-inspired science that bridges purely foundational science and purely applied science. Use-inspired science brings together the quest for fundamental understanding of our universe with ideas for deploying that research to solve specific problems.

Strategic Priority No. 6, “Deploy outstanding engineering, science and technology to our mission,” is about actively supporting research at Sandia that takes full advantage of our strength in Pasteur’s Quadrant to develop creative, cutting-edge solutions to emerging national security challenges that would have been unimaginable only a few years ago.

Pasqual's quadrant chart

Our ability to bridge between foundational science and applied engineering has had profoundly important results, from the development in 1960 of the cleanroom, which provides the assembly environments required to produce high precision switches for nuclear weapons, to the Z machine, a science and engineering accomplishment that today is used for national security and foundational physics tests not even envisioned when the machine was designed.

Strategic Priority No. 6 is essential because of the increasing complexity of our national security landscape. We must begin now to address the threats coming in the next several decades as the pace of technological change and the potential for technology surprise continues to increase, and international relations gain more players and more points of conflict.

Because of this fast-changing landscape, work on Strategic Priority No. 6 began by assembling a multidisciplinary team of early, mid and late-career subject matter experts to brainstorm and identify research areas that could dramatically enhance Sandia’s national security impact over the next 20 to 30 years. We then selected visionary research themes emerging from this brainstorming that merited additional exploration. In September, we presented the six most promising visionary research themes to the Sandia leadership team:

  • From bits to brilliance – Creating a computing ecosystem that is ubiquitous, integrated across our missions and all scales of the computing technology stack, and uses emerging and undiscovered technologies and architectures to meet mission needs.
  • Assessing the impact of geoengineering – Evaluating efforts to mitigate the impact of climate change, and detecting efforts by adversaries to use geoengineering as a weapon.
  • Inherently safe, resilient, modular nuclear weapons – Research for nuclear weapons in the 2050s and beyond.
  • Human augmentation – Ethical research and development on human augmentation for defensive purposes.
  • Mission impact of Z-Next beyond nuclear weapons – Assuring institutional participation and benefit across the Labs’ national security missions from the proposed Z-Next facility.
  • Non-nuclear strategic weapons – Providing options for strategic strike without using nuclear weapons.

The visionary research themes that emerged from this process target emerging existential threats to or opportunities for national security that make full use of Sandia’s expertise. They will either use or extend existing capabilities or allow us to create new capabilities via research partnerships. They will involve divisions and centers across the Labs, and they will motivate and attract top-level talent. They build on strengths widely recognized by our stakeholders and offer a path to future sponsorship. Finally, these visionary research themes address “Sandia-hard” problems that require discovery science and ultimately groundbreaking engineering.

Even if individual projects in these visionary research themes fail, they will succeed by generating knowledge to reach their immediate goals, knowledge that we can use to guide subsequent ideas.

To ensure these visionary research themes have traction at Sandia, the selected themes will have an associate laboratories director sponsor who will be responsible for building a business strategy and actively supporting the development of proposals to fund related activity. My organization will help by providing an interface to the Laboratory Directed Research and Development program and our Office of Science and Weapons Science & Technology portfolios, and our partnerships organization. Sponsorship decisions will be made during an upcoming Sandia leadership team meeting in the context of the needs of all six strategic priorities.

During my time as a practicing physicist, I routinely turned to engineers to help make my experiments a reality. This experience has given me great respect for what foundational science and applied research can accomplish when they work together, and I anticipate our implementation of Strategic Priority No. 6 will produce amazing contributions to national security challenges. I also strongly believe our work on this strategic priority will unleash new opportunities for staff across the Labs to propose and participate in exciting research that will shape the future of science and engineering.