ORNL director talks new role, lab priorities, Trump administration

7/12/2017

New Oak Ridge National Laboratory Director Thomas Zacharia hasn't lost his sense of gratitude in the 30 years he's worked at the lab.

"I have built a career standing on the shoulders of giants," Zacharia said. "When I came to this laboratory as a post-doctoral fellow, I was this very junior person and walking the hallways, and I would see the people whose papers and book chapters I'd read."

That was in 1987. Zacharia, who is originally from Kochi in southwest India, had just completed his Ph.D. at Clarkson University.

"I considered being able to come to this country and work in an environment like ORNL a high privilege," he said. "I must confess that sometimes I look at it and say if it's something that you work very, very hard to earn, you tend to value it a lot more."

At the time, ORNL policy meant Zacharia would need to work at the laboratory for two years before he would be considered permanent staff. Applying for permanent residency would take another two years. 

"It was the late '90s before I became eligible to be a U.S. citizen," Zacharia said, adding that he worked hard to feel that he was "worthy" enough to advance each step of the way.

Supercomputer's home

Since then, he has worked in computational materials science and in supercomputing. He spearheaded the creation of the Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility, the home of the country's most powerful supercomputer, and founded the National Institute for Computational Sciences before serving as the deputy science and technology director under his predecessor, Thom Mason.

"In my case, wise mentors and managers encouraged new ideas, which meant the pursuit of new funding, which enabled the rapid growth of our computing capabilities," Zacharia told ORNL staff the day before he took his new position.

"I think it is a tremendous privilege not only to represent them, but also the laboratory system and the capability of the people, programs and facilities we have here to solve complex national problems," Zacharia said in an interview a week later.

Zacharia's background in applied science differs from his predecessor's, but his experience in supercomputing positions works well with his new role with Department of Energy priorities under the new administration.

Aligning with national priorities

The Trump administration and Energy Secretary Rick Perry have prioritized the development of the world's first exascale computer by 2021. The president's budget request allocated $508 million toward the goal.

"I'm biased, but I agree with him because having done a lot of the work, it is again a foundational capability, not only for science but it also drives innovation," Zacharia said.

"ORNL scientists embody computing in almost everything that they do," he said. "They are thinking at the intersection of the Spallation Neutron Source and computing and microscopes and all the other capabilities that we have."

ORNL is home now to the Titan supercomputer. Once the most powerful computer in the world, it dropped to the fourth-fastest in the world in June. Titan can make 27,000 trillion calculations per second, measured as 27 petaflops. An exascale computer would be capable of making 1 billion calculations per second, or one exaflop.

Titan is still the most powerful computer in the country, but the administration and Congress want to see the United States become the world leader in computing again.

"Continued U.S. leadership in high performance computing is essential to our security, prosperity, and economic competitiveness as a nation,” Perry said in a statement after the Energy Department announced in June that it would provide six companies with funds to begin developing the exascale computer.

Perry also has prioritized electrical grid security, nuclear energy and national security, all areas in which ORNL maintains active research partnerships.

"When I look at it, the fact that this laboratory is in a sweet spot of the four highest priorities that the secretary and this administration have articulated bodes well for this laboratory," Zacharia said.

Areas under fire

Still, some legislators and interest groups have raised concerns that cuts in other research areas will affect national laboratory science.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said as many as 1,600 ORNL jobs would be at risk if the Energy Department's Office of Science took the president's supposed 17 percent cut, and ORNL operations and facilities would take a hit, too.

The House of Representatives has since returned a mark-up of the bill that is much more generous with the Office of Science. But the president and the House have recommended cutting ARPA-E, the agency funding high-risk, high-reward research projects. ORNL has five research projects currently funded by ARPA-E and is a partner in six national ARPA-E projects.

Zacharia said that ARPA-E funding is a small percentage of the laboratory's overall budget. Fears of job loss due to lack of funding persist at the laboratory, which is still in its annual planning process to align laboratory resources with the DOE priorities set out for fiscal year 2017.

"I have pledged a relentless pursuit of institutional effectiveness. This means setting the right expectations on our cost of doing business, discretionary investments in both science and facilities, and organizational structure," Zacharia told ORNL staff June 30. 

“At the moment, we face uncertainty about funding and programs," he said. "We are making the case for the importance of our work. We also know the long-term solution is always to effectively serve national priorities."

The Trump administration remains a strong critic of climate change research. President Donald Trump often criticized the field even before he took office, and his proposed budget would gut climate science programs at NASA, the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Perry has several times suggested a "red team" review to scrutinize climate science research activities funded by the Department of Energy.

ORNL conducts broad work in environmental sciences that Zacharia said the laboratory plans to continue to pursue.

"I think what is very important for any scientific institution to do, and particularly a national laboratory to do, is that we are an apolitical organization," he said, adding that much of the research funding at the lab is allocated according to the best research proposals.

"My experience is that good ideas get a fair hearing regardless of the administration and carries today, and I expect it will continue going into the future," he said.

Zacharia also said a red team review shouldn't be a cause for concern at the laboratory because reviews "bring out the goodness of a program" and allow for investment in new ideas.

Looking ahead

Concerning his own plans, "Well, I think I can read the directions very well," Zacharia said, referring to the DOE's priorities for at least the next four years.

Zacharia also wants to ensure the second target station at the Spallation Neutron Source is built so that ORNL and the United States can remain the world's leader in neutron sciences and nuclear science and engineering.

"We have an obligation to be the best in the world because this nation is being generous and investing a billion and a half every year in us, and that is a lot of resources," Zacharia said.

"It comes with a lot of responsibility, and it is truly an amazing environment. So we say that we are going to be the best as long as everyone who comes to work has a passion to be the best in their chosen field, and that is one of my goals."

Source: Knoxville News Sentinel, by Brittany Crocker

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