March 1999


A conversation

Ten years into the job, Al Trivelpiece shares some thoughts on directing ORNL.


Al Trivelpiece
To help christen our introductory issue of the ORNL Reporter, Lab Director Al Trivelpiece set aside some time for an interview.

This is your tenth year at ORNL. You arrived just as the Cold War ended and have seen that event drive much change at ORNL and in the national laboratories as a whole. Can you think of one event since 1989 specific to ORNL that has affected the Lab more than any other, such as the Tiger Teams, the Advanced Neutron Source cancellation, the Galvin Commission, the Spallation Neutron Source or the split with Energy Systems?

Thatís hard to do; theyíve all been major influencesóTiger Teams, Galvin, the separate contract and now the disruption of rebidding the contract.

With respect to the Tiger Teams, years ago a hazardous materials audit at Rocky Flats led to a general review of DOE facilities, including a comprehensive ES&H audit of ORNLó80 people for 60 days. Its 1400-page report spelled out more than $1 billion in things that needed correction. Weíve requested funding each year ever since, but have not received substantial funding to make the expected changes.

The Tiger Teams cost us a great deal in lost opportunities, but they did heighten our awareness of health and safety and resulted in a beneficial housecleaning. That was positive. One of the Tiger Teamís side benefits was the redesign of the Scarboro-Bethel Valley Road intersection, which grew out of one of their findings. It ranked high on the scale of being hazardous. I used to drive through that intersectionís high-speed merge daily. It got my heart rate up to a good level. I believe that the redesign of that intersection has probably saved lives.

SNS is a cornerstone project for ORNL. As a multipurpose laboratory, some areas arenít involved in SNS and some people in those areas express feeling neglected. What would you tell a researcher who thinks you donít care about his or her work because itís not SNS related?

The SNS is the kind of anchor facility that gives long-term continuity and stability to national laboratories. The Department is noted for doing a good job of building scientific facilities that advance the national interest but which are also important to the institutions where they are located.

I suspect that some people may feel that they are left out because of the emphasis on the SNS, but I would point out to them that opportunities in other areas of science and technology will grow because of SNS. For example, the chances of getting funding for biological research are substantially enhanced by the possibility that protein crystallography and other techniques of interest to biologists will be done with the SNS, which gives them an enhanced ability to acquire funding.

The Department is currently embarked on a program to have a Strategic Supercomputing Initiative that involves acquisition of multiteraflop high-performance computers. The SNS will certainly generate data and direct computational needs that would warrant a large computer, and also generate problems that provide opportunities for research that would advance the art of high-performance computing.

The SNS is much more than a cornerstone. Itís a watershed facility that stimulates activities in many other areas of science not only now but 10, 15, 20 years from now.

The Leadership ORNL program stresses initiating change from middle levels of management. What do you expect of the program and its graduates?

Leadership ORNL owes its existence to (Deputy Director) Richard Genung. It was his idea. Itís gone very well. The previous leadership-type program involved a single one-week offsite where participants heard about management problems, but the functions of ORNL were never really explained.

In a program like Leadership Knoxville, the participants get to visit the jail, the state capitol, the city council and county commission, the welfare agencies. They get to see all aspects of how a city functions and meet the people involved.

Richard has organized a similar program for ORNL: The participants tour various facilities on a systematic basis to learn what goes on at the Lab. They then participate in a weeklong offsite to learn something about management skills and techniques. The idea is to help prepare people for advancing to management positions, not just to hear a standard one-day lecture, which is usually hopelessly inadequate. Itís a great idea and I applaud Richard for it.

One of my contributions is to persuade some of my friends with experience in Washington come to the offsite to explain how the institutions in Washington work and what it takes to get things done there.

Speaking of Washington, do we have a sufficient presence there? Some have felt that compared with other Labs, we donít. Who carries the load in Washington?

Floyd Thomas has managed our Washington office since it was opened and he has done an outstanding job of providing facilities for people when they make trips there and in providing help in writing proposals. The office does things that help both ORNL and the department.

Some have pointed to the legions other labs have there while we have relatively few.

What we should expand is the number of people from the Laboratory who are working under appropriate circumstances within various agencies and offices in Washington. Such service by Lab employees is of value to us and to our government.

Do you get excited about the science here? Which projects push your buttons?

Science is a way of life for me. Iíve made a living at it for over 40 years. However, itís hard to single out any particular project of study. I am proud of the fact that as an institution, ORNL has the capability to mount and organize the largest civil construction project that the United States is currently doing, the SNS. The five-lab arrangement likely breaks ground on the way scientific facilities will be built in the future. Itís a real pioneering effort.

The astrophysics work that Tony Mezzacappa and his colleagues are doing over in the Holifield Radioactive Ion Beam Facility is fascinating to me because of my background in physics. Trying to understand the nuclear synthesis and origin of elements in the universe is fascinating. Trying to understand what happens when a supernova occurs contributes to the understanding of how it all works.

The past few years have seen an explosion of knowledge in various areas of the biological sciences. ORNL is in a good position to capitalize on some of its assets and make contributions to functional genomics. The idea that you can understand the structure of and correlate genes with the functions that cause disease and perhaps make progress toward the mitigation of human disease is fascinating. That such knowledge might lead to a better understanding of the risks of long-term low-dose effects of radiation and chemicals is important. I believe that these are important things to do.

This Laboratoryís programs range all the way to the esoteric aspects of studying the fundamental properties of the nucleus of the atom to how the insulation in the attic keeps your home warm. The thing most interesting about this Laboratory is the incredible diversity in the things it does: biology, botany, fundamental physics, energy, high-performance computing. Thereís not much in the world of science and technology that doesnít go on somewhere in this Laboratory. Alas, I donít have time to keep up with much of it, but Iím always happy when I can find a few hours to visit some of the activities at ORNL to learn what is new and exciting to those who make the advances in their areas.

Most of us get four weeks of vacation with 10 years of service. Do you manage to take four weeks off a year?

Iím engaged in some outside activities for which it is necessary to take vacation days. I also serve on bodies like the Tennessee Technology Development Corporation for the state of TennesseeóIím chairman and president of TTDC and the Tennessee Science and Technology Advisory Council. In addition, the Department keeps me busy with lab director meetings, and other special meetings. Even so, I did manage to get a couple of weeks of real vacation last summer. Shirley and I went to Ireland.

Do you think you have to travel too often?

Yes. (laughs) Thatís easy.

What part should the Lab play in economic development in the community?

Iíve been troubled since my arrival in Oak Ridge that the state and local communities do not have a good appreciation of the asset thatís represented by ORNL. In testimony that I have given before the Tennessee General Assembly, I have said, ďImagine that the federal government decided to have a new national lab funded at $500 million with 5,000 employees. Would Tennessee complete for it?Ē I think they would, vigorously. On the other hand, they donít have to. They already have one: ORNL. Shouldnít the state spend as much in trying to ensure the one they have prospers with the same vigor as they would in trying to win one? Such a level of interest in ORNL does not seem to be a hallmark of the region. Our value is clearly underestimated and misunderstood. We are a national laboratory, not a local jobs program, even though many excellent jobs are a result of the programs at ORNL.

The city of Newport News made a grant of $4 million for a dormitory for the Jefferson Lab. The state of Illinois spend $18 million on a hotel adjacent to Argonneís Advanced Photon Source. There have been no such similar efforts on the part of the regional community here to encourage DOE to fund projects by providing such support through bond issues and the like. Although the local community has not done much, the state has pledged $8 million for the Joint Institute for Neutron Science. This was an important element in our efforts to obtain approval for funding for the SNS.

Institutions like the Friends of ORNL and activities like those of Tennesseans for the Spallation Neutron Source are effective and are greatly appreciated. Because of them, quite a collection of letters was written on behalf of the SNS. The President of the United States received a letter from the Dandridge City Council supporting the SNS. From my own experience in Washington, one letter like that can be worth more than a letter from a prominent or famous citizen. Sometimes those letters from small city councils get to the Presidentís desk faster than one from celebrities.

Such support does help and is important. Dandridgeís was the first of a number of letters like that. I appreciate all of the communities that took time to pass a resolution in support of the SNS.—B.C.