Today at Berkeley Lab

State of the Lab: Q&A with Lab Director Mike Witherell

It’s been an interesting year. The new presidential administration signaled new priorities that put science, science policy, and the role of the national labs in the spotlight. After a couple of continuing resolutions, Congress in March approved an FY18 federal budget with a few surprises for the DOE labs, and for Berkeley Lab in particular.

Meanwhile, as part of the Lab’s strategic planning process, Lab Director Mike Witherell this month delivered the Annual Lab Plan to DOE leadership. The once-a-year presentation of the plan in Washington, D.C. gives Lab leadership an opportunity to present and receive feedback from DOE on its directions and priorities, offering a measure of multi-year programmatic stability.

Witherell recently offered his thoughts on the Lab’s direction, status, and reputation. Lab Chief Communications Officer John German conducted the interview. (Watch Witherell’s June 25 “State of the Lab” address to employees) .

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of interviews with members of Lab leadership on their missions, visions, and priorities.

John German: Thank you for taking the time to provide your thoughts. What’s your sense of how science, and Berkeley Lab in particular, came through the most recent leadership transition in Washington and its first budget cycle?

Mike Witherell: We’re doing well. The Department of Energy’s Office of Science is a basic science research agency, so its vision is much longer-term than individual election cycles. As a science laboratory, that’s the way we have to think. We’re solving problems that are 10- and 20-year efforts. We have to keep moving in the right direction, advancing science.

The FY18 budget is a real show of support for basic research. In addition to the Office of Science, the other basic research agencies like the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes for Health are getting strong support from the federal government. I think we all understand how important this research is for the nation’s long-term health and economy.

Here at Berkeley Lab, we also did very well. A year ago, I was encouraging people not to become too anxious early in the budget cycle. It’s important to remember that the President’s budget requests are just that, a signal of the priorities of one branch of government. In the end Congress appropriates the funding. As it turned out, when they did, they were very supportive of what we do. In my years of being a lab director I probably have never seen as positive a budget year as we had in FY18.

German: Are there any surprises in particular?

Witherell: Yes there were. We had all of our major projects supported in the way that we hoped. To give you an example, the Advanced Light Source Upgrade (ALS-U) was just getting going and we didn’t know if we would really be able to move forward. We were given the word in January this year that the way appropriations were looking, we should get ready to accelerate the project. So we’ve been ramping that up since January, and now that we’ve got 30 million dollars for FY18, the ALS-U effort is escalating. We’re in a really good position.

Another positive development is that we’re cleaning up the Lab site in several places – Old Town, the Bayview site – so we can build the research facilities we need for the future. Previously, cleanup had been funded at a level of about 8 million dollars a year, so we were able to go only so fast. In this budget, we’ve got 40 million dollars, so we’re now able to aggressively attack the decommissioning of the Old Town site, and that’s great. Those were two major surprises.

The other major development, which was somewhat out of the budget cycle, was a request from the Office of Science to prepare a mission needs statement for the Biological and Environmental Program Integration Center (BioEPIC). We had been developing this concept for several years – how to integrate some of our scientific capabilities to really look at microbe-soil-plant-environmental interactions from the micro scale all the way to the field scale. But we didn’t know when we were going to be given the opportunity to move forward. Then in February, on very short notice, they asked us to bring them a mission-need statement. Everybody at the Lab involved in this reacted quickly, and in a matter of weeks we were having a major review, after which they gave us approval for the mission need, CD-0 (for Critical Decision 0), which is the first step. It is not much money right now, but it means that we know we’re on a path to what we hope is our next building at the Bayview campus. That’s enormously important for the future of this laboratory. So that was very positive news.

German: How have changing priorities from Washington affected us directly?

Witherell: There has been a lot of attention on infrastructure and facilities for science, and it’s a good time for that. Over the past several years all of the laboratories, including this Laboratory, have been investing less than we should have been in renewing infrastructure. In tight budget years it is very difficult to do enough infrastructure renewal. When we do have good years and support for projects, that’s the right time to do more. And that’s what we’re seeing. This year, we have big project reviews coming for the NERSC9 upgrade and for BioEPIC. These efforts are really going to renew the Lab’s capabilities for the next 10 to 20 years. These are the facilities that will drive our capabilities for breakthrough science.

German: What does all this say about the government’s and DOE’s support for the national laboratories?

Witherell: It’s a very strong statement of support and an investment from taxpayers in the future of science and technology and its importance to the nation. As a Lab, we’re being funded at a level that is somewhat over a billion dollars for the first time. They’re trusting us, and we need to continue showing what great research we’re doing, and we need to take excellent care of the Laboratory.

This responsibility we all have – as stewards of the Laboratory – is something I’ve been thinking a lot about. It means more than just getting the research papers out this year. It means taking care of the quality and integrity of our research. It means managing our people thoughtfully so we have the talent to tackle the biggest problems for the nation. And it means protecting the physical assets and resources of the Laboratory. These are the foundations of the nation’s trust in us and of our ensuring this remains a powerful national resource and a great place to work.

German: This stewardship initiative is something you’ve been discussing with Lab leadership recently?

Witherell: Yes. Over the holidays last year, I wrote down what I think are the principles of stewardship and the ways we should exercise stewardship of the Laboratory. That led to a good discussion with the deputy directors, ALDs, and division directors, and now we have a charter for this, which is a page of principles. Recently I had a one-on-one discussion with each division director at the Lab in which we talked about these principles, and each division director and I signed an agreement that we’re going to do stewardship together. I was really pleased with how strongly our leadership is embracing these principles, and with their ideas for incorporating the principles of stewardship in their own organizations.

German: What does stewardship mean for employees?

Witherell: Everyone will be hearing about this in the weeks to come. The division directors will be talking to their staffs about their vision and what this means for their own operations. But the divisions are quite different. The Advanced Light Source is different from the Joint Genome Institute and the Energy Technologies Area, and so on. It’s up to the division directors to determine how to communicate to all the people who work for them about their role in the stewardship of this laboratory. But I have talked with each of our leaders about how we will hold ourselves accountable for this.

Editor’s note: The principles of stewardship are available here.

German: How are we doing in our science mission?

Witherell: We’re doing very well. I presented our new Annual Lab Plan to DOE a few weeks ago in Washington, D.C. This is a chance for us to tell the Office of Science what we’re doing and what we want to be doing next, show how our strategic plan fits together with their strategic plan, and get some immediate feedback. Again this year, the feedback from DOE was extremely positive. We are seen as a leading laboratory in all of the major areas we pursue here. That’s very important, because as long as we maintain this reputation for doing great science and being careful stewards of the Lab, they will keep giving us new projects. That’s our value proposition.

I should add that one of our greatest assets in maintaining our reputation for excellence is our fantastic scientists. We have more National Academy members here than any of the other laboratories. We’re also getting the greatest share of DOE early career research awards, which is developing the next generation of National Academy members. We are also investing some of our own discretionary funds – our LDRD funding – on early career scientists.  Finally, we have developed new mentorship programs for our most promising emerging researchers. These talented scientists, working in top-flight facilities, are the future of the Laboratory.

German: Is there anything else you’d like to say?

Witherell: Yes. It continues to be a real privilege to lead this Laboratory and its high quality, high impact research. Every time I do my homework for presenting our Annual Lab Plan, I learn so much about the science, and I see the fantastic things that people here are doing. That’s the most fun part of the job. It’s a great laboratory to run because our people are so accomplished and they’re so committed to the mission of the laboratory. I am inspired by the people who work here.