Nearing retirement in 1992 after 50 years of service to the Manhattan Project and the Laboratory, senior staff advisor Don Trauger reflected on the lessons of a half century. "The Laboratory and science at large," he urged, "should expand their strategic planning to longer time spans." Rapid political changes on both the national and international scene have limited effective implementation of some programs to four years or even two years, he noted. And industry as well is shortening its planning to as little as two years because of high capital costs and demands for early returns on investments. "Perhaps," Trauger suggested, "the national laboratories can effectively consider the time spans that are really desirable. Even 100 years is not as distant as we might have thought."
Laboratory management, as always, devotes considerable attention to planning the institution's future research and proposing the acquisition of equipment and design and contruction of facilities needed to support world-class science. The Department of Energy, in fact, requires the Laboratory to prepare institutional plans looking five years into the future, and in 1990 ORNL Director Alvin Trivelpiece formed a planning group to analyze the Laboratory's long-term corporate strategy.
In addition to assigning the highest priority to the Laboratory's proposed Advanced Neutron Source (ANS) and other nuclear reactor studies, Trivelpiece emphasized the global importance of the work of Energy Division teams, who by 1992 had assisted 21 nations with development of their energy and environmental technology policies. Pointing out that events in these nations have ramifications for the environment worldwide, Trivelpiece urged Congress to support Laboratory efforts to assist other nations in meeting their energy needs while reducing the strains on the environment and world oil markets.
To improve science education, Trivelpiece advocated greater cooperation with Oak Ridge Associated Universities, the University of Tennessee, Pellissippi State Technical Community College, Roane State Community College, Tennessee state government, and regional school systems. He was particularly interested in designing classrooms for the 21st century, using reasonably priced electronic teaching aids and student workstations.
For the 1990s and beyond, Trivelpiece and the strategic planning group expected Laboratory directions to be dominated by four major themes: education, energy, environment, and economic competitiveness. They proposed to support these efforts with three new major user facilities the Laboratory hopes to complete within a decade: the ANS and its adjoining research facilities, a materials science center on the east end of the Laboratory, and an environmental and life sciences center on the west end.
The increasing importance of materials science to the Laboratory's efforts to improve national economic competitiveness is demonstrated in the proposed Materials Science and Engineering Complex, which the Laboratory hopes to construct near the Holifield Heavy Ion Research Facility tower. Consolidating existing programs in new facilities to enhance scientific interaction, the complex would include centers for solid-state research and processing, advanced microstructural analysis, advanced materials research, and composite materials investigations.
Explosive growth in the materials sciences and their role in the Laboratory's technology transfer programs since 1980 has severely overcrowded existing laboratories. Building a new complex is considered more economical than upgrading older structures to meet modern environmental and safety standards. The proposed new complex would make possible more on-site participation of university and industrial researchers in cooperative projects in ceramics, composites, superconductors, and high-temperature metals and alloys. This complex, therefore, enjoys support from universities and industrial firms in the Southeast.
At the western gate, near the existing Environmental Sciences and Aquatic Ecology laboratories, the Laboratory proposes to develop an Environmental, Life, and Social Sciences Complex. The complex would include centers for biological sciences and Earth systems and a biological imaging and advanced photonics laboratory. Its completion would concentrate the Laboratory's programs in structural biology, biotechnology, human genome, global environmental studies, risk assessment and management, environmental restoration, social sciences, energy technologies for developing nations, energy efficiency, and transportation systems research.
As with the materials science divisions, research in the environmental, life, and social sciences in 1992 was scattered throughout the Laboratory in older facilities. For example, the Biology Division had been housed since 1946 in obsolete facilities at the Y-12 Plant, eight miles from the X-10 Laboratory complex. With much of the Laboratory's global research centered in the newly formed Environmental, Life, and Social Sciences Directorate, the collaborative interactions facilitated by concentrated research in this new complex would help open new horizons for the solution of global challenges.
One noteworthy problem area for the Laboratory lies in nuclear physics. Although the Holifield heavy-ion research accelerator was only 12 years old in 1992 and had set new records for beam energies in 1992 that were 60% higher than those achieved in 1982, it had fallen on hard times. New European accelerators provided even higher energies, and budget cuts reduced the operating time available for researchers at the accelerator.
To reverse these trends, the Laboratory proposed using the Holifield facility to accelerate radioactive ion beams, a unique capability that would make the facility more valuable to nuclear physicists, especially those interested in astrophysics. If this proposal is approved, a recoil mass spectrometer, jointly funded by the Laboratory and universities, would be acquired to complement the radioactive beam capability.
While applying cost constraints to facilities such as the Holifield accelerator, DOE began to devote vast resources during the 1990s to improving scientific understanding of the transport of wastes in the environment and the remediation of waste disposal sites. As a result, Trivelpiece expected the Laboratory to expand its waste management and remediation work.
BACK TO THE FUTURE
As the Laboratory approached the beginning of its second half century, Alvin Weinberg was preparing Eugene Wigner's papers for publication. His effort to uncover and organize the Laboratory's past gave Weinberg an opportunity to reflect on Wigner's legacy. The Laboratory's most renowned scientist not only set a standard of performance for Oak Ridge, Weinberg observed, but he also provided a vision of the future that speaks as directly to the uncertainties of the 1990s as it did to the uncertainties of the 1940s. In a simple statement of truth, Wigner once remarked, "Every moment brings surprises and unforeseeable eventstruly the future is uncertain."
Weinberg himself viewed aging and the future with equanimity. He has wryly concluded that scientists improve with age because their knowledge broadens as they become older. Much of science, he said, comes not out of brilliant flights of fancy but from viewpoints and techniques growing out of a lifetime of scientific inquiry.
The same sentiment might well apply to an institution that reaches the half-century mark. Its corporate experience and accomplishments should serve as a foundation of strength upon which to build a vigorous future of inventiveness and purpose.
Although the Laboratory, like science generally, seems more interested in the future than the past, it sometimes turns to its past for hope, inspiration, and understanding. When drafting plans for Laboratory initiatives during the 1990s, the strategic planning group admitted that improving national competitiveness through technology transfer and science education might be "more difficult than the Manhattan Project, which birthed the national laboratories nearly a half century ago."
In the 1940s, the nation's attention and resources were riveted on the war, and Laboratory efforts on behalf of the atomic bomb received the highest priority. Today, the enemies are less clearly defined and Laboratory initiatives must share the political spotlight with other government priorities and needs. Thus, the Laboratory will have to work even harder to justify public investment in its research activities. As Weinberg recently suggested, if the Laboratory is to become a prime engine of the national economy, its people must "adopt the same high standards and dedication shown during the four years of the Manhattan Project."
And so the experience of the Laboratory has come full circle. Amid the complex of buildings, intricate equipment, piping, test tubes, roads, reactors, accelerators, robots, and supercomputers, one force stands above all others in explaining the institution's success: the dedication of the people who work there. That dedication reached its first peak during the war years, when secrecy prevailed. Fifty years later, the Laboratory is determined to open its doors to the future, drawing on its storehouse of knowledge and skills to serve the public interest.
The purposes to which the Laboratory can now apply its talents are more varied. But for the Laboratory, the future has always been uncertain. Its staff has seized opportunities and redefined the Laboratory's purposes time and again to fit changing circumstances. As the Laboratory celebrates its 50th anniversary and as it stands on the threshold of the 21st century, there is little doubt that it will marshal its resources and talents to meet the challenges of tomorrow. At the dawn of a new era, this much is certain: if the Laboratory's past is its prologue, then its next 50 years should be as demanding, rewarding, and surprising as its first half century.
We'd like to thank our University of Tennessee summer of 2002 science writing intern, Jodi Lockaby, for redesigning the Web version of The First Fifty Years.
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