Thom Mason: 'You never leave anywhere'
May 17, 2017
One of the attributes of basic science is a tendency toward long lead times from discovery to application. A framed memo on the Laboratory director's office wall in Bldg. 4500-North is in its own way an example. It's a request Clinton Laboratories researcher Ernest O. Wollan made to his boss, Richard L. Doan, in May 1944 to measure neutron diffraction at the X-10 "pile" with some equipment he'd brought up from Chicago.
More than a half century later, in 1998, the X-10 pile would be known as the Historic Graphite Reactor Museum. A young Canadian Ph.D. would arrive at Oak Ridge National Laboratory to help deliver the enormous neutron scattering facility that emerged from Wollan's pioneering curiosity. Nearly two decades more, and ORNL is a world center for neutron science and Thom Mason is wrapping up a decade as Laboratory director. He's leaving the post at the end of June.
Thom sat down in his corner office recently for a 45-minute interview for ORNL Today.
OT: I've always appreciated how much you appreciated the history here.
TM: It's a great history. It's good to know about because, as the saying goes, it doesn’t repeat itself but it does rhyme.
OT: Somebody writes a fairly simple memo in 1944 and it winds up being Big Science.
TM: It was a much more expedited process in those days.
OT: How did you get here? Did you come expecting to do research or did you expect to be an administrator?
TM: When [original Spallation Neutron Source project director] Bill Appleton recruited me to be science director, the SNS project was just getting started. Bill was associate director for physical sciences and responsible for SNS. Part of the discussion was I'd still do research. Once I arrived it became apparent that I'd have to jump in with both feet. I came in the beginning of May 1998, and there was a Lehman review – an Office of Science project review – right after I arrived. Somebody shoved a bunch of viewgraphs in my hand and said "you're giving a talk, we're doing this DOE review," which was to approve the baseline for the project. I had no clue what that meant. Actually we were unsuccessful. DOE refused to accept the baseline we proposed – they didn't have confidence in the cost and scheduling. That's where I began my crash course in project management.
OT: I've been going through old ORNL Today files for the 75th anniversary and I've watched the progression of SNS, and the problems we had with a certain congressman.
TM: Yeah, tough love. Zero.
OT: He came around eventually. What was the learning curve like?
TM: The learning curve was the part I liked best, actually. It's stimulating to be in a position where you're trying to understand how things work. It's learning fast, it's engaging. That happens any time you move into a new role. I was pretty quickly given responsibility for the target group in addition to the instrument group. I knew instrumentation from my time at Riso in Denmark, but the target was new and a high-hazard radiological facility. Project management and how DOE works was something I had to figure out. Very stimulating.
After the SNS project was complete and had a year of operation, I got the Lab director role. Once again a steep learning curve, but by that point in time I kind of understood managing people, DOE, the federal budget process, safety, finance, human resources and so forth. SNS was good preparation because you see all those aspects. I didn't know much about national security. I had only become a U.S. citizen less than a year before I became Lab director and didn't have a security clearance. The Lab has sufficient breadth in terms of science and engineering that it's impossible to be an expert in all those areas – lots to pick up to understand what we were doing in biology, computing, nuclear and fusion. That's the part I like best, actually – trying to understand new things and how they fit together.
OT: Did someone stand out in helping you manage all of this?
TM: Lots of people. I've always been fortunate in working with teams who were motivated and effective. You learn the most from your colleagues. And I've been fortunate to work for people who gave me opportunities, whether it was as a grad student, with my thesis advisor, Malcolm Collins, and folks like Bill Buyers I worked with at Chalk River and Brookhaven who let me pursue things that I was interested in. As a postdoc at Bell Labs, my mentor there, Gabe Aeppli, provided lots of opportunity. The same thing's been true every step of the way. Bill Appleton recruited me to come here initially, and David Moncton came to run the SNS project. He really knew what was involved in running a project, having been responsible for Advanced Photon Source. Bill Madia was Lab director when David left, and he was the one who made the leap of faith and put me in charge of the project even though I'd never done anything remotely like that before and of course, Jeff Wadsworth was the director as we completed SNS.
OT: What's your best accomplishment?
TM: Well, first off the important thing about the Lab is there are 4,800 people doing amazing things every day. There's little that I've done and a lot the Lab has accomplished. I was at a board meeting in Switzerland where they were showing statistics on neutron facilities generated by the Institut Laue Langevin, so it's not our data, it's ILL's, and the SNS and HFIR in terms of scientific productivity and high-impact publications have just taken off in the past couple of years. It takes a while to get the facilities working, the instruments working, the users, and you have to write the papers, but now we're seeing the world leadership manifest itself that we always knew was there. That's what brought me to the Lab in the first place, so I take pride in that. We’ve done amazing things in computing during my time here, having really put ourselves on the world stage in an area that is central to how we do science in the 21st century.
We've had some really important national security contributions,where our technical input was important to formulating constraints placed on Iran in progressing to weapons quantities of enriched uranium and developing monitoring technology to prevent it That ties to the fuel cycle, front end and back end, which is also relevant to U.S. domestic needs and our support of nuclear energy. The Lab's been really successful in both winning and, more importantly, properly executing large multidisciplinary efforts that have a high degree of visibility, lots of investments, with important problems to solve like our Bioenergy Science Center, which we won just as I took over. It was wonderful to become Lab director and have this thing handed to you, which of course many people had been working on prior to that. CASL (Consortium for the Advanced Simulation of Light Water Reactors) and the Critical Materials Institute adopted the model for BESC. The scientific and technical results have been outstanding and well recognized by DOE.
One of the things I'm most proud of is our effort with the University of Tennessee and the graduate program – the Bredesen Center – which has expanded to other universities. It certainly brings a group of motivated, smart young future scientists in a way that gives them a unique educational experience, but I also think it is invigorating for our staff. That's something that will have a huge impact over the years as we graduate researchers, even if they don't all work here. Some may work at the Lab, or at other DOE labs, or move to positions at industries and universities. We're building an alumni network that I think will really serve us well.
OT: I hoped you'd mention that. I've always been impressed that people of pretty high stature who have come here, like (former presidential science advisor) Jack Gibbons and (former Lab Director) Bill Madia, who did work here as students and then became influential in their careers.
TM: I remember when I left my job at Riso in Denmark to go to the University of Toronto, one of my mentors there, Allan Mackintosh, said, "You never leave anywhere." You may move to a different spot, but you retain your connections to the place you were and the people you worked with. I certainly retained my connections to my colleagues in Denmark. When a person spends time here as a graduate student or a postdoc, or spends a portion of their career here, that's a permanent connection, and it often comes back – someone may go on to a university and they'll send us their students. That helps build our network for collaborators and our reputation.
OT: What's the biggest job left undone?
TM: There's still a lot to do. Summit and the machine that comes after Summit – the Exascale Computing Project. That's a heavy lift with funding and challenging technical work to be done. We're well positioned with a role in the overall management of ECP. We're embarking on an SNS upgrade, with the Proton Power Upgrade’s conceptual design review in May. That's the first phase ulitmately culminating in a Second Target Station that will double the overall capacity and significantly increase the performance for measurements involving long-wavelenth neutrons. We have the competition for the successor to BESC, the Center for Bioenergy Innovation.
The Lab is in a strong position and facilities are largely modernized, but there are still parts of the Lab that aren't up to scratch. It's not as big a challenge as when I arrived in '98, but if we don't stay on top of it we can get back in the ditch in terms of infrastructure. We're always going to be working to renew the facilities
We also have uncertainties on the new administration and details on the "skinny budget." We don't know the final outcome because Congress is the final arbiter. But the Lab has a history of responding to changing priorities.
OT: Any disappointments that stick out?
TM: Well, we haven't won every proposal that we've made, you wouldn't expect to, but you're always putting your best foot forward to come out on top. In terms of facilities, we've had some unsuccessful runs, such as the new data center for computing infrastructure with private funding. We couldn't get that through the wickets at the Office of Management and Budget. We've been able to respond and adapt and we've found ways to use existing space to accommodate Summit, for example, but you always have problems and setbacks.
Overall our safety performance has increased substantially over the past several years, but it doesn't mean things haven't happened that shouldn't have happened. The measure of the institution is not the absence of problems, but overcoming the problems that you encounter.
OT: What was your impression of ORNL when you arrived, compared with other places you'd been?
TM: Certainly the infrastructure was not in good shape. Think of the old portal, which is now gone (laughs). And the parking lot that's now occupied by the third-party facilities and the Joint Institute for Computational Sciences. Lots of barbed wire fences. The labs were not generally state of the art. They were state of the art in the '50s. We were definitely in the ditch by the late nineties. That's why the SNS was important. It signaled the Department was committed to the Lab. At the time I arrived it didn't give the impression of being a late twentieth century, state-of-the-art research institution.
The Lab was facing a demographic challenge, as well. A lot of people were becoming retirement eligible. That can be a real challenge when a career’s worth of expertise walks out the door. It relates to the infrastructure challenge because we were recruiting for new efforts like the SNS and computing. Recruiting into substandard facilities is a hard thing to do. The fact that we were modernizing helped us in recruiting. Now, something like 70 percent of our PhD scientists and engineers have been here less than 10 years, and they were coming into facilities that would support the research they were looking to do. These outstanding researchers are now doing amazing things, and part of the reason they came here is they knew they would be able to do these amazing things in first-rate facilities.
OT: Who is the most impressive person you've met that you might not have met if you weren't Lab director?
TM: One of the great things about this job is you get to meet all sorts of different people – whether it's entrepreneurs coming in under Innovation Crossroads who are getting to start energy-based companies who have tremendous passion and commitment. Or the Wigner lecturers, an interesting mix of Nobel prize-winning scientists, or leaders who have had impact in the policy space, or business leaders. I've met Bredesen Center graduate students and the President and Vice-President and everything in between, and it's a tremendous privilege to be able to represent the Lab to them.
OT: How have East Tennessee and Oak Ridge changed since you moved here?
TM: It's changed a lot. If you went to downtown Knoxville, Market Square was all boarded up. It didn't look too good. Now you've got Market Square and Gay Street in a tremendous revitalization and Main Street in Oak Ridge is finally coming to fruition. The degree to which the business and economic development community is interacting with the Lab has changed significantly, to the benefit of both. It's good to have an engaged private sector that aligns with our strengths, while the Lab is an asset to the region's effort to attract and grow companies. That combination is very powerful, particularly since the economic downturn. It's become a more connected, cosmopolitan area.
At the end of the war there was a big debate over whether it made sense to have a lab here. There was the sense a confrontation with the Soviet Union was coming and production facilities at Y-12 and K-25 were going to be necessary, but that didn't mean there needed to be a research lab at X-10. A lot of the scientists were returning to their universities and the question was, is it viable to even have a research lab in East Tennessee, where you're so isolated from what's going on in technology?
If you look now, the things that were seen as disadvantages have been pretty much eliminated. We're all connected: You can get on a plane and be in Washington or New York in a little over an hour. Compared with other areas like Chicago and the Bay Area, where a lot of those researchers in the late '40s returned to, we have an advantage in cost of living and quality of life.
OT: Also the example of the Russells who came here from Maine to do genetics research, but they fell in love with the area and catalyzed the Obed River environmental preservation.
TM: Oh sure, yeah. And actually that's another thing that's been developing: Look at the urban wilderness efforts in Knoxville or the expansion of Oak Ridge’s rowing venue. Taking advantage of a natural asset is a positive thing. And that's one part I'm not leaving behind – we're keeping our lake house!
OT. Why did you stop wearing your earring?
TM: I had a painful encounter between the earring and the strap on my ski helmet about a year ago. Pretty much everyone skiing wears a helmet now.
OT: What will you miss most about ORNL and East Tennessee, if not the lake house?
TM: The breadth and depth of activities at the Lab is really hard to reproduce. I feel privileged to have been in involved in them and feel pretty committed. It's not going to be easy to watch from a distance as the exascale project comes to fruition, or the Second Target Station. I'll miss all the colleagues, but it's like Allan Mackintosh said, you never really leave a place. You keep all those connections. I don't intend to disappear off the face of the Earth.
OT: Which leads to the next question: What do people do at Battelle?
TM: I'll still be very involved with the labs. Battelle manages six labs, one of which is Oak Ridge, so I won't be totally leaving Oak Ridge behind. I know the other lab directors and their institutions reasonably well, but I'll be coming at it from a different point of view. Battelle is responsible for managing the labs, but they do that through the lab directors. The corporate role is more about government and contracts.
Hopefully I'll be an advocate for the system as a whole – the value of the national labs to the nation. There's the contract research side of Battelle, which is in itself like a lab. It serves the federal government, technical work in support of national security and health related stuff. A somewhat different mix than DOE labs, but executing the mission of Battelle as defined in Gordon Battelle's will – to do research and development to solve important societal problems. In addition to that a portion of the net proceeds can be used for philanthropic services to broaden the social impact, which is something I'm looking forward to learning more about. Getting back on that learning curve.
OT: If you leave a letter in the desk drawer to your successor, like the presidents do, what's it going to say?
TM: Write three letters! [laughs]
The challenge in this job is to not be overwhelmed by the crisis of the day. Keep focused on the longer term view on where the Lab is going. What the Lab is to become is the lens through which decisions are made. If you let yourself get overwhelmed by the problems that crop up and don't devote sufficient attention to that future state of the Lab, you'll wind up making bad decisions.
OT: Were there times you felt overwhelmed?
TM: To be honest, I feel more engaged and on top of things in a time of crisis. Not that I would want one to happen, but it seems like when things are falling apart, I feel most engaged in what's going on. It's very stimulating. And I try not to get overwhelmed because it's not helpful to you or the people around you, either.
OT: What kind of advice would you leave us?
TM: If we deliver on the commitments that we make that justify the investments of federal dollars, and we're seen as a place that gets stuff done and delivers the results, that will get you through most anything that comes up. It's a privilege to receive taxpayer funds. There are tremendous demands from all different directions for important things on the public purse. If we do a good job of doing the science and engineering in support of those national missions, that is the best argument you can offer for continued support. – Bill Cabage