Research at a national laboratory is often driven by tight deadlines. But what if a big idea needs more time to go from impossible to possible? A Research Challenge lets it play out and make a difference.
Sandia Labs is a famously mission-driven place. Thousands of scientists and engineers work every day to help the U.S. identify and defeat threats to national security, some nuclear, some chemical and biological, and some just plain terrorism.
Steve Rottler knew it when he took over as chief technology officer and vice president of research in 2009. He also knew that research is vital to carrying out the national security mission. “It was going to be very important for Sandia’s research community to have a sense of strategy that could be married with the mission,” he says. “Research should drive the mission, even as research is being responsive to the mission.”
And an idea was born.
The investment pays off
As Rottler and his team developed a technical strategy for the future of research at the labs, the concept of Research Challenges emerged. “They were intended to be bold ideas that would excite and inspire the research community,” he says. “We wanted to better integrate mission with research and vice versa, and do it in a way that would lead to Sandia being recognized not only as mission
Today Sandia has 11 active Research Challenges, organized and put into action largely by Julia Phillips, Rottler's successor as chief technology officer. They are designed to produce breakthroughs that impact the mission and contribute in their own right to advancing the frontiers of science and engineering. They are:
- Beyond Moore Computing
- Data Science
- Detection at the Limit
- Engineering Abiotic-Biotic Living Systems
- Engineering of Materials Reliability
- Power on Demand
- Pulsed Power Opportunities for Weapons & Effects Research
Resiliencyin Complex Systems
- Revolutionary Approaches to the Stockpile
- Science and Engineering of Quantum Information Systems (
- Trusted Systems and Communications
Organize people on a larger scale
Research Challenges are part of a Sandia research strategy that includes the LDRD and Grand Challenge LDRD programs, which award funding through a competitive proposal process. LDRD projects run three years and have
The longer-term Research Challenges gain momentum when associated projects win Grand Challenge LDRD support. “We want to see the Research Challenges organize people on a larger scale, and Grand Challenges are one aspect of that,” says Andy McIlroy, Sandia’s deputy chief technology officer and director of Research Strategy and Partnerships. “Many of the successful Grand Challenge proposals are aligned with one or more of the Research Challenges. The proposals maturing out of Research Challenges tend to be particularly compelling and well thought out.”
The LDRD program is funded as a percentage of all the programs that come into the labs, currently at about 6 percent or $155 million a year. About 20 percent of Sandia’s LDRD portfolio is connected to Research Challenges.
Halfway into the 10-year vision, several Research Challenges are showing results and have won Grand Challenge LDRD funding, McIlroy says. The
And Power on Demand (see Super Power ) is moving strongly in multiple directions, propelled by several Grand Challenges, McIlroy says. One of them, on ultra wide bandgap, has published results showing it’s possible to make transistors and diodes from advanced semiconductor materials that could perform much better than silicon, the workhorse of the modern electronics world. The breakthrough work takes a step toward more compact and efficient power electronics, which in turn could improve everything from consumer electronics to electrical grids.
“Their vision is getting out beyond Sandia and having
Technical passion and skilled management
Research Challenges organize around
The teams build organically around the technical and executive leaders. “The strength is the community that comes together,” McIlroy says.
Sandia computer scientist Rick Muller, who works on the
A panel of laboratory fellows and senior scientists reviews the Research Challenges each year to see if they are headed in the right direction. “We’re coming to believe there should be an end point to a Research Challenge, maybe 15 years out,” McIlroy says. “If constructed in the purest form, they are trying to address a challenge and at some
Mathematician and computer scientist Tim Trucano, who chairs the review panel, says the value of a Research Challenge is in its power to integrate the lab and provide the time and space to move down a complex path with a goal in mind, at the end delivering compelling, mature and usable research results. “They are essential because of what they’re trying to do,” he says. “This work is critical to the lab and to the nation.”
A pure vision
Leland says the Research Challenges fulfill Sandia’s mission as a Federally Funded Research and Development Center, or FFRDC, by advancing the state of the art in science and technology. “The challenges are a pure expression of that,” he says. “We’re creating a vision to solve a problem that we think has national importance. We figure out how to connect the dots to make that happen and get where we want to go. FFRDCs should be taking a leadership role in pushing the state of the art.”
Rottler says the challenges have helped integrate research at the labs and produced world-class, world-recognized science. “I’m pleased with the trajectory,” he says. “We should continue trying to get better and better. For
Leland says the challenges show the value of a national laboratory. “We can address an issue that’s important that might be outside the scope of what people are even thinking is possible today, and pursue it so that in 10 years we’ve got something ready to go,” he says. “People might think, ‘Maybe that’s possible.’ We can say, ‘It’s not only possible, here it is.’ That’s what a national lab can do.”