FYI spoke with Department of Energy Office of Science Director Chris Fall about a range of issues bearing on the national lab system, including a new “Labs of the Future” thought exercise, pandemic recovery, diversity initiatives, and research security.
FYI spoke with Department of Energy Office of Science Director Chris Fall last month about a range of policy issues affecting the $7 billion research portfolio and 10 national labs he oversees. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
“Labs of the Future”
What is the intent of the Labs of the Future initiative your office is undertaking?
We have an annual strategic planning process, but a strategic plan is relatively incremental. Labs of the Future is meant to be a clean-sheet sort of exercise where we ask the questions, "What if we didn’t have all these labs and we decided as a country that we wanted to build up a research enterprise in the public interest for basic science? What if we weren't tied to our legacy starting back in the 1940s through the Cold War with a lot of security? What if we weren't tied to the physical spaces? What if we weren't tied to government contracting, procurement, personnel policies, and so forth?" And let's look around the world for examples, such as the science cities constructs in Europe. We'll get to whether we could implement some of this stuff after we come up with the ideas.
It’s also an opportunity to consult with a wide variety of stakeholders, not just our labs. We're going to have a series of topical convenings. The first one we’ve queued up is about the architecture of science facilities. It turns out there's a subcommunity of architects that work on this. They have some great ideas about how great architecture informs and facilitates great science.
What are some of the ideas people are bringing forward?
It's clear that we tie ourselves up in knots when it comes to policy. And so policies for people, policies for cooperating in new ways with industry and academia, partnership models, funding models, those are all really big opportunities — especially the way we hire people. In the private sector you can do anything unless the law says you can't, and in the public sector you can't do anything unless the law says you can, so the idea of authorities is really important.
Another really important thing is the role of laboratories like ours in the techno-economic context of a region. They are anchor tenants in places, and what does that mean? How do we better integrate them with the surrounding cities or regions as employers, as drivers of identity, as part of the economy?
How did you select the newly announced quantum information science centers?
First of all, hats off to Congress for asking for them. We really embraced the spirit and text of the legislation and set out in our funding opportunity announcements the requirement that these are not about one university, one company, one laboratory. Successful centers would be a consortium of a diverse group of performers. And though we didn't demand it, we did lay out the idea that one competitive factor was going to be buy-in from places like state and local governments, universities, and so forth. These other partners would have meaningful skin in the game, and I think that always leads to more effective collaboration.
You’ve expressed interest in developing a joint project management process to alleviate frictions when collaborating with the National Science Foundation. What do you have in mind?
We work really well with NSF, but the fact is when we contemplate a big joint project, NSF has a very complicated stage-gate process and we have our own stage-gate process. I'm not saying one or the other is better, but they don't line up. We should be able to engineer a joint process. And not just for NSF, it could be with the National Institutes of Health or any other agency. It's the right thing to do because it's more efficient.
You’ve also mentioned taking a more portfolio-based approach to international collaborations.
My observation is that when I go to Europe, there's a collective consciousness not just about aspects of an agency, but aspects of the whole government in terms of what they want to accomplish. I've stood up an office focused on international cooperation and asked the team to recognize that we are best served by a comprehensive strategy — by country, by topic — rather than engaging internationally in a project-by-project basis or a program-by-program basis.
We're not going to change our wholehearted enthusiasm about collaborating internationally, but we do want to do it in a way that recognizes we have equities across all of our programs when it comes to a particular country, for example.
DOE has prohibited its lab employees from participating in talent recruitment programs sponsored by the governments of China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea. It has also implemented a “risk matrix” that restricts the labs from partnering with entities from those countries in certain sensitive areas. Does DOE plan to extend such restrictions to university-based work?
No decisions have been made. We made it clear earlier that we're in conversation at the interagency level about what to do about extramural support. Because we’ve released our first funding opportunity announcement package for fiscal year 2021, I can tell you we are asking for some additional reporting about potential conflicts of interest or conflicts of commitment, consistent with the interagency conversation.
The risk matrix covers parts of quantum science. Given that the new quantum centers are led by five different labs, will foreign nationals from countries included in the matrix not be able to participate in work at the centers?
We're going to have to work out the details here. There's a difference between work done at the labs and work done at universities. Labs are just one piece of the consortia. But I can say this is among the most important areas of technology development right now around the world. We do have some international partners in the centers, notably Canada and Italy, but it would be hard for me to imagine inviting folks from countries of risk to participate.
Research workforce and infrastructure
(Image credit – Ryan Postel / Fermilab)
It's called accelerators but also includes lasers. We use these technologies in basic energy sciences, in high energy physics, in nuclear physics, in fusion energy sciences. It turns out we make a lot of this ourselves because there's not a supply chain in this country for things we need when we build something like the Linac Coherent Light Source II accelerator or PIP-II, the shooting end of the LBNF/DUNE experiment.
The idea is to pull some but not all of these efforts into the new office. The components on the basic science side are still going to do basic research for accelerators. This is more about engineering and the supply chain and coordinating best practices across the complex.
This is a rarefied group of people that do this kind of work from the engineering design, building, through project management, and we want to level out major projects to make sure they have work on an ongoing basis so they're viable. Major projects will still sit in the programs and they will be executed by laboratories as they are now, we're not changing that.
NASA established prioritization principles whereby early career researchers will be first in line for supplemental funding to complete grants disrupted by the pandemic. Do you plan to do anything analogous to that?
We don't know exactly what we’re going to do yet. I understand completely the situation that early career researchers face. Call them “folks in jeopardy,” because “early career” implies someone who's in a first position.
We've got postdocs who are moving on to faculty jobs that now don't exist or have been delayed. We've got grad students hoping to become postdocs and those positions have been delayed. A lot of postdocs and graduate students are going to be supported by much more senior people with larger grants and established programs. So I'm not sure that just simply saying we're going to prioritize early career researchers captures the whole problem for us.
If we were to take action right now by diverting money, we would cannibalize existing plans and programs. We'd like to see whether Congress plans to allocate additional money for research and for our major projects and other holes that have been caused by the COVID-19 crisis.
We understand that we have a very difficult diversity problem in STEM. And I'm very proud of what we're doing to mitigate that. I'm not going to take credit because this work started before I got to the department, but, for example, our laboratories in the past several years have been asked to develop a formal strategic plan for diversity. Starting this year, how well they are achieving their diversity goals will become a formal part of their grade, which determines what sort of management fee they get.
Now we are turning our attention to the extramural program. Part of the problem is it's hard to gather data because it's optional for folks to report data. Beginning this year, we are going to be redoubling our efforts to encourage people to provide demographic information at the grant award stage, and we're going to institute a construct that allows us to ask about demographic information at the application stage. This will help us understand the pool of applicants, hopefully attract more diverse candidates for grants, but also understand what the transfer function is between applications and awards.
What is the status of the push to modernize infrastructure across the labs?
We are on track to refurbish the infrastructure. Congress has been very generous. Instead of focusing on little bits and pieces, we've rolled these up into major line items for Congress and said, “Here's all the stuff we need to do at Lab X and here's the timeline,“ treating it like a much more significant project instead of an afterthought. The challenge will be to maintain a focus once all of that is done, making sure we have the ability to keep a fund that lets us repair the labs as we go instead of waiting until they break and not raiding that for what seems to be a higher-priority new thing. These labs are 50 or more years old in many cases. You don't want to put a new collider on top of plumbing and electricity that doesn't work right.