Alvin Trivelpiece suggests
to ORNL employees some ways of defending the Laboratory
against internal and external threats to its continued
existence. Photograph by Curtis Boles. |
Editor's note: ORNL Director Alvin W. Trivelpiece delivered his annual State of the Laboratory address to employees and visitors on June 12, 1997, in Eugene P. Wigner Auditorium, Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
In my State of the Laboratory address last year, I didn't talk about the scientific, technical, and managerial accomplishments of the preceding year.
I didn't make any predictions about what might happen in the forthcoming year. I am glad that I didn't, because I would have been wrong again. To avoid being wrong next year, I am not going to make any foolish predictions this year either.
In an ideal world, our Showcase Lectures should keep you up to date on many of the scientific and technical accomplishments inside the Laboratory. Our Distinguished Lecture series should provide some thought-provoking challenges for you to consider. Our new publication, Ridgelines, should keep you up to date on changes in management structure and personnel, both here and at Energy Systems. Our World Wide Web pages, such as the ORNL Review, now contain a great deal of information about what is going on around here. But this is not an ideal world. I know as well as you that these sources of information don't provide the depth of communication that we should have. This talk will not cure our communication problem. Even so, I hope that what I do say will remind you of the circumstances in which we find ourselves and that my remarks might suggest some things that you might do to improve our situation.
Last year I organized my remarks around three themes: "The Way We Were," "The Way We Are," and "The Way We Need To Be." In commenting on the way we need to be, I listed ten items that I feel are imperative to our long-term survival as a national laboratory. I will not repeat them here today. I hope that you remember them in spirit if not in detail. They were published in Lab Notes and the ORNL Review, and are still listed on our Web server. It is interesting to me that, since last year's talk, no one has said that any of the items on my list of imperatives were unrealistic or inappropriate. In preparing for my remarks today, I reviewed that list. In light of many things that have happened this last year, I believe that a couple of items need to be added to that list.
First, we must collectively and aggressively defend Oak Ridge National Laboratory against those forces that would seek to diminish or destroy it. Second, we must become politically more sophisticated and active on a national, state, and local level.
A review of the history of ORNL reveals that over the years it has faced several serious threats that might have caused its demise as a great research and development institution. Effective defensive efforts, a little offense, and a little luck have prevented that outcome. If you doubt this, I suggest that you read Alvin Weinberg's book, The First Nuclear Era: The Life and Times of a Technological Fixer.
Most of the past threats against the Lab were the result of outside forces. In some cases these were simple matters of regional rivalry or competition. Today, the threats to the continued existence of ORNL are as strong as they ever were. To be sure, these threats are more subtle and insidious, and they are not all external, but these threats are real. There are many ways to destroy or diminish a great institution like ORNL. Loss of a sense of purpose, or loss of dedication to uncompromising standards of excellenceeither is a sure way to decay slowly over time so that recovery is not possible. Inattention to small and seemingly innocuous changes that have long-term consequences can lead to irreversible circumstances. (Speaking of slow decay reminds me I need to jog a little more frequently.)
|Linda Horton makes a point about ORNL's materials research to U.S. Senators Pete Domenici (right) of New Mexico and Bill Frist of Tennessee. Photo by Jim Richmond.|
The belief that we are an island and that events beyond our shores have no influence on us is foolish. In some cases, threats come from the unintended consequences of otherwise well-intentioned acts. For example, while I was director of the Office of Energy Research, I established a guideline of about 20% for the level of work-for-others activities at the labs. My intention was to give the lab directors the ability to prevent inappropriate work from dominating proper lab activities. I had no intention that it should become a control point for use by federal employees to regulate laboratory functions. What is worse, it didn't even prevent excessive levels of inappropriate work, as I had hoped. Silly me. I didn't even solve the original problem. We still do sometimes take in work that is not consistent with the functions and missions of a national laboratory. We need to find a better way to deal with this issue.
come from the increased competition
for shrinking federal support for
research and development.
Ernie Moniz, then of the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy and now DOE's Undersecretary of Energy, was a major participant in the December 1996 dedication of ORNL's Holifield Radioactive Ion Beam Facility. Photograph by Curtis Boles.
Other threats to our continued existence come from the increased competition for shrinking federal support for research and development. This is, in part, a result of the end of the Cold War. In addition, each congressional session has spawned proposals to abolish the Department of Energy, to establish the equivalent of base-closing commissions for the national labs, to change lab missions in ways that would gut the excellence of the labs, and to transfer some of the labs to other agencies. None of these threats are easy to deal with, but they are understandable, and they are out in the open. The debate that they have generated is probably healthy, even though it makes us a bit uncomfortable. We should not be exempted from the debate on how to perform our jobs better and at less cost to the taxpayer. In fact, we should welcome such debateif we truly believe that we can compete against anyone in the world in certain areas of basic and applied research and development.
Some of the threats come from proposals to locate activities at ORNL that are not appropriate for this national laboratory. Agreeing to such proposals is difficult to resist, because in some cases it might lead to the short-term gain of a few jobs, but in the long run it would severely diminish the functionality of the Lab or its potential to seize future opportunities of great significance.
U.S. Representative Jimmy Duncan of Tennessee's 2nd District and ORNL's Vinod Sikka discuss materials processing. Photograph by Curtis Boles.
Some of the threats to us come from our own lack of political sophistication. The word "political" is the one with a small "p." It means understanding the process by which government programs get created. It also means understanding the relationship between various political entities that have influence over our well-being. I know, from various ORNL leadership development courses that I have been involved in over the past eight years, that too many of you don't have a clue about where our funding comes from or how we get it. This is not acceptable.
More of you need to have a better understanding of the process, even if you do not directly receive or compete for the money. You need to better understand some of the debates and issues of our times, because they do influence what we do. I know that many of you are raising families or work long hours here, and you correctly ask, "How do I find the time to do more?" I don't know. But let me remind you that surveys to identify national priorities consistently fail to mention science and technology. This is in spite of the fact that science and technology are the engines of our economy. So it might be appropriate to find a little time to tell your friends or neighbors what we do and why ORNL is important to them, and to our nation. Remember, the national lab that you save might be your own.
Defending ourselves against any of these threats is not straightforward or simple, and in some cases it may not even be possible. But in the words of Dylan Thomas: "Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light." We should not go gentle into that good night. We are not at the end of our days. But, we do need to become more aggressive in our own defense.
What I worry about is not impatience and frustration, but ignorance and apathy. There is an old joke about the fellow who was asked what he thought about ignorance and apathy. He replied that he didn't know and he didn't care. Well, I do know and I do care. I hope that you do take the time to know and that you do care. Ignorance and apathy are real threats. If you don't know and you don't care, who will? After all, you are the assets of this institution. ORNL continues to provide many of you with oppor-tunities to work on projects that are interesting and challenging. This privilege carries with it the burden of giving good value to the taxpayers who fund our work and to their agents, our elected and appointed officials in various branches of government.
Having said this, our reengineering efforts are going well. Not as fast as some of us might wish, but realistically, they are going well.
|ORNL Director Alvin Trivelpiece and former Laboratory directors Alvin Weinberg and Herman Postma show the National Medal of Science plaque awarded years ago to the late Eugene P. Wigner, a former ORNL research director. Wigner's widow gave the plaque to ORNL, and it now graces a wall in Wigner Auditorium, which was dedicated in 1996. Photo by Curtis Boles.|
The main objective of the reengineering effort is to enable us to perform our jobs better. One of the major concerns expressed about the national labs is that we cost too much. In one sense, this is a subjective judgment about what constitutes productivity in our kind of knowledge business. This judgment might be wrong because it does not take into account the quality of the work. Unfortunately, we cannot defend ourselves against charges that we cost too much because we cannot simply and accurately track our costs with a suitable cost accounting system. Correcting this is not a simple matter, nor will it be cheap, but an appropriate system will pay for itself in a short time. With the recent progress on acquiring the software for the SAP system and the hardware platform to run it, we are on our way to having the tools we need. This Delta project, as it is now known, is the linchpin of our reengineering efforts. Without such a new system, it is not clear that we can meet any of our other reengineering goals or our commitments to the Department of Energy on cost savings. We now have some 80 duplicative accounting systems at ORNL. This makes it impossible to understand where costs could be reduced. If we cannot accurately understand our internal circumstances, how can we hope to prove that we are a cost-effective alternative to another lab, a university, or industry? The new system will eliminate those separate systems and permit us to understand our costs. This new system is essential to our survival.
Reengineering human resources is no less important. I have said many times that our principal enduring assets are the talents and skills of the individuals who make up ORNL. We need to have a personnel system that is fair to all and competitive on a national and international basis. We need a system that pays for performance and not simply for duration of employment. We need a system that will make it easy to recruit and retain a next generation of scientists and engineers to carry out the programs of the future. I am pleased that the human resources team is doing an excellent job. You can see just what they've accomplished on the reengineering home page.
The reengineering team charged with improving the ability of the scientific and technical staff to get their work done faster, better, and at less cost to the taxpayer looked at the role of the Plant and Equipment Division. This team has developed a set of agreements that speak to improved productivity and recognize the degree to which everyone at ORNL plays a key role in its ability to survive. This is a unique agreement, and all the parties are to be congratulated. Again, the national laboratory that you save may be your own. The other reengineering projects are making good progress and will lead to improvements in our operations in due course.
Many of you already do this through your scientific and technical societies. I hope that the rest of you make sure that the word gets out to your friends and neighbors in the area about what we do here and why it is important to the economy of the region. Talk to reporters and the press in the language they use to communicate with their readers. That is, please avoid your usual dedication to technobabble.
Another line of defense has to do with training the next generation of leaders for ORNL. In that regard, ORNL Deputy Director Richard Genung has proposed that we start a program called Leadership ORNL. This program would be similar to Leadership Oak Ridge and Leadership Knoxville. It will take a selected group of employees through a several-month sequence, a few hours at a time, to review various programs and functions of ORNL. This program will conclude with the final week of our existing Leadership Development Program. This is a great idea, and Richard has graciously agreed to lead the effort to develop the Leadership ORNL program.
Secretary of Energy Peña visited ORNL on May 30, 1997. His visit lasted only one hour. As a result we weren't able to show him very much. I hope that he comes back so that we can show him more. But, even though his stay was brief, I don't think it could have gone any better. Sometimes it seems as though we don't believe our visitors have a good understanding of what we do unless we show them everything. Having had many marathon briefings inflicted on me, I can attest that this strategy doesn't work. Those of you who didn't get to personally tell Secretary Peña what you do should rest assured that each of your colleagues who did get to brief him did an outstanding job.
Doug Lowndes (right), ORNL corporate fellow, discusses advances in pulsed-laser
with Charles Townes, Nobel Prize-winning inventor of the maser who was a Distinguished Lecturer in 1996
at ORNL. Looking on is ORNL's Ben Larson. Photograph by Curtis Boles.
I wish that some of our other initiatives were in as good shape as the NSNS. We do not have a solution to our problem of improving our Mouse House. This will be the focus of some increased attention during the next year.
We are still working to acquire a multi-teraflops massively parallel supercomputer. I am optimistic that we will eventually be successful in some measure, but the path to success is not clear at the moment.
The Knoxville Summit also saw the establishment of a joint University of Tennessee and ORNL transportation research center. This is off to a good start.
On the disquieting side, the selection of a Management and Integration contractor to run the Environmental Management programs at the former Oak Ridge K-25 Site (now called the East Tennessee Technology Park) is likely to result in a reduction in force at the Laboratory. The magnitude and timing are still only estimates, but eventually we will have to deal with some loss of work that had been done by ORNL staff.
Jeff Christian of ORNL's Buildings Technology Center provides an overview on the Laboratory's energy-efficiency research to Oak Ridge City Manager Bo McDaniel (left) and Parker Hardy, president of the Oak Ridge Chamber of Commerce.
In my remarks this year, I haven't singled out any individual for praise or recognition. This is deliberate. I wouldn't know how to do so without mentioning several hundred people. The list would include reengineering teams, transition teams, those of you who were presented with awards and honors, etc. You know who you are. Without you we wouldn't be making progress on any of our scientific and technical initiatives, or on our reengineering efforts, or on program development, or on any of the other projects that will contribute to our survival. It was a deliberate decision to involve as many of you as possible in the transition and reengineering teams. I am glad that we did. It is working well. Each of you has a debt to your fellow workers for what they are doing for you. I hope that as this year unfolds we can continue to make progress toward solving the many problems and challenges that we face. I am proud of what you have accomplished this year.
Last year I closed with a quote from Sir Isaac Newton about how he had seen further because he had stood on the shoulders of giants. This year I am going to close by telling you that the future of ORNL now rests on our shoulders. You must now become the giants for the next generation. This means that there is a lot of hard work yet to do. Let's get on with it.
Liane B. Russell, Lockheed Martin corporate fellow, shows a Mouse House resident to U.S. Representative Bart Gordon of Tennessee's 6th District.
In general, the state of the Laboratory could be better, but when I look at the circumstances that many other research and development institutions are facing, I can only conclude that we are pretty well off. I am also optimistic about the generally positive climate for the support for research and development by this administration and Congress. I can only hope that future budgets reflect the positive statements recognizing the value of research and development.