March 2000

AWT’s legacy

A ‘de-mystified’ institution of knowledge, a bright future

by Al Ekkebus
Al Trivelpiece has guided ORNL from the appearance of the Tiger Teams to the groundbreaking for the Spallation Neutron Source. More than a decade ago, Al came to ORNL from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, where he had been executive director for about two years. He went to the AAAS after spending almost six years as the director of DOE’s Office of Energy Research.

He had been a federal employee, a university professor, a flight instructor and a journeyman electrician, and he had worked in industry. This breadth of experience was the beginning of a trend for directors of DOE’s multiprogram science labs.

Al had been to ORNL many times before, when Herman Postma was Lab director. Al had also visited here during his earlier days with the Atomic Energy Commission’s Fusion Energy program. Oak Ridge and the sunny South would be different from Washington, D.C. After all, when Postma recruited him, Herman said there was “a slower pace of life here in Oak Ridge,” and that Al “might have an opportunity to maybe get back into research.”
Al Trivelpiece on LMER's first day, Jan 1, 1996.
The changes at ORNL since 1989 mirror those throughout DOE. There are now six major local DOE contractors instead of just one. Programmatic and operational emphases have changed. Tiger Teams led to the proliferation of DOE orders, later reconsidered under Necessary and Sufficient, which led to Work Smart Standards and now to ISMS. ORNL’s contractor changed from Martin Marietta Energy Systems to Lockheed Martin Energy Systems to Lockheed Martin Energy Research. Soon it will become UT-Battelle.

ORNL has been a test bed for several DOE programs at laboratories. The results have changed the way we do business. Back in the late 1980s, ORNL was the first multiprogram laboratory to be placed on an award fee. At one time it was determined that 95 percent of ORNL’s award fee was based on its ES&H performance and not science. This process was a forerunner of the currently used “critical outcomes” agreement between each laboratory and its DOE Operations Office.

Technology transfer was promoted, then tempered with concerns of corporate welfare. Still, our tech-transfer record is comparable with those of the largest DOE labs even though we are much smaller. An ORNL Cooperative Research and Development Agreement signed in September 1994 was celebrated as DOE’s 1000th CRADA; ORNL now has about 300 CRADAs, with combined investments by DOE and the industrial partner exceeding $300 million. More than 20 CRADAs have been signed annually for the last several years, even though there are no longer any DOE funds specifically designated for them.

We continue to win more than our share of R&D 100 Awards, now at 104. Our six winners of Presidential Early Careers Awards for Science and Technology exceed those won by any university or nonfederal institution. Since January 1989, ORNL authors have had about 13,000 articles published in refereed journals and ORNL inventors have received over 400 patents.

After Tiger Teams, audits and assessments were becoming more frequent, averaging almost one per day. Responding to findings was expensive. As overhead expenditures rapidly increased in the early 1990s, the overhead rate was projected to approach 53%. Increases in overhead to pay for safety fixes led to calls to slash overhead to improve our ability to compete with other research performers. Al began Project 45, trying to bring the overhead rate down to that level. He got research division directors to actively participate in overhead budget discussions and determine overhead budget levels, a process that continues today.

Cost cutting was continued under Secretary O’Leary’s Strategic Alignment Initiative when she committed DOE to save $14 billion over five years. In addition to a one-year wage freeze, ORNL’s share was $90 million in savings or cost avoidances, which was achieved in about three years (our current total after four years is $116 million). ORNL’s overhead expenses have steadily decreased since then.

Environment, safety and health have been important to Al. The first two of his eight operational imperatives focus on these areas. Long before DOE had a name for it, Al championed integrating safety into every ORNL activity. His vision—that excellence in research required excellence in ES&H—gave ORNL an advantage in implementing Integrated Safety Management. He has long recognized, and supported, the approach that ES&H is conducted best when it is part of every staff member’s job, rather than an “audited in” function. This is a lesson learned when Al was a journeyman electrician, and this background has served ORNL well. His assignment of like-minded leaders to ORNL’s ISM steering committee guaranteed a successful program.

The Laboratory’s community involvement greatly increased in the 1990s. ORNL hosted its first Community Day in 1995, and Family Days and Take Your Child to Work Days have been held to increase the community’s awareness of ORNL. ORNL has participated in the East Tennessee summits and now manages the American Museum of Science and Energy, publicizing DOE accomplishments to a wide audience. ORNL’s successful exhibit in the Legislative Plaza in Nashville in 1999 prompted many members of Tennessee’s General Assembly and their staff to become more familiar with ORNL’s activities.

Several consistent thoughts characterize Al’s tenure as Lab director. Among them, the nation must have confidence in ORNL’s scientific ability, a flagship facility is important for ORNL’s survival, it is imperative that ORNL recruit and retain terrific talent, and partnering with other institutions will yield greater success than going it alone. Under Al’s leadership, ORNL is the first (and only) national laboratory to emphasize scientific ethics. Al began the ORNL postdoctoral fellowship program that has grown to more than 200 participants. Collaboration with regional institutions has increased; examples include the Joint Institutes with the University of Tennessee, the Tennessee Mouse Genome Consortium and the National Transportation Research Center.

Al made many trips to Washington. That is where the money comes from and that is where the people who determine funding levels for ORNL’s R&D activities are. He testified over a dozen times in formal Congressional hearings. He knows the workings of both the legislative and executive branches.

Al realized the need to “de-mystify” ORNL and familiarize local and state government officials with ORNL’s role in the national research agenda and what that means to our friends and neighbors in Tennessee. He has hosted breakfasts at ORNL for city and county government leaders, as well as tours of ORNL by area “leadership” classes. Al has also served as co-chair of the Tennessee Science and Technology Advisory Council, which advises the Governor and the Commissioner of Economic and Community Development on a full range of science and technology issues.

Al’s efforts in the state were recognized on February 16 when he received accolades from both houses of the Tennessee General Assembly. Their proclamations thanked him for his service to his profession, to ORNL and to the state of Tennessee. His ears rang with standing ovations.

I was privileged to accompany Al to Nashville that day along with other members of his staff and witness this historic event. His efforts to promote the benefits of science and technology to the region and the state were recognized in a way that is not typical for directors of DOE laboratories. Because of Al, many Tennesseans have come to realize the economic benefits provided by ORNL and other knowledge-based institutions. These institutions are now regarded as economic powerhouses important to the state’s future.

His hard work was key to another recent event in which eight tents covered 300 people on a hilltop two miles from the nearest paved road, two days after a deer hunt. On that December morning, they watched Vice President Al Gore; Energy Secretary Bill Richardson; Gov. Don Sundquist; Sen. Bill Frist; Reps. Jimmy Duncan, Bart Gordon and Zach Wamp; and other leaders break ground for the Spallation Neutron Source

Al steps down as director on March 31. I wish him the same bright future he has worked to secure for ORNL. Vaya con Dios.

Al Ekkebus has served as assistant to the director for the past decade.