In July, the Lab’s top leaders delivered Berkeley Lab’s Annual Lab Plan to DOE leadership. The once-a-year presentation in Washington, D.C. is an opportunity to receive feedback from DOE on the Lab’s directions and priorities.
Meanwhile, Congress is working toward an FY20 federal budget, and the U.S. Senate recently confirmed Chris Fall as DOE’s Office of Science Director, firming up leadership of the 10 Office of Science national labs, including Berkeley Lab. Fall visited Berkeley last week as one of his first official national lab stops.
Berkeley Lab Director Mike Witherell provided his thoughts recently on the research landscape and the Lab’s status and direction. (You can watch Witherell’s August 19 “State of the Lab” address to Lab employees.) Lab Chief Communications Officer John German conducted the interview.
John German: Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts. It’s been a busy time. What does all this change mean for the Lab?
Mike Witherell: I’m pleased we have a head of the Office of Science, and that he chose to spend two days of his busy schedule with us last week. The visit went very well. He was interested in all of our research capabilities and spent some time getting to know our Lab and seeing our user facilities. We also had the chance to show him some of our expanding work in quantum science and advances in laser-accelerator technology, and he enjoyed his discussions with some of our early career researchers. It was encouraging to hear his thoughts for the future. But I want to point out that I think how well his visit went is also evidence that we’ve been well aligned with the Office of Science for some time. When we presented the Annual Lab Plan to DOE leadership in July, the conversation went extremely well, and there was a lot of continuity with our previous conversations. We are very well aligned with DOE’s priorities.
German: What are you hearing about the FY20 budget?
Witherell: We have been very well supported by the appropriations and authorization committees in both the House and Senate for the last two years. All of our discussions this year have led me to believe that that support is continuing. It’s always dangerous to speculate, but as of this moment, we are hopeful we’ll see a budget again by the beginning of FY20. We think it will look a lot like the one that is funding our work this year, and this has been a very positive year for us. The support for what all the national laboratories are doing continues to be quite strong.
German: Any new or emerging opportunities?
Witherell: A big part of the platform of our Laboratory are the five user facilities, and so, clearly, the fact that all of them in different ways are going through major upgrades is important for the future of this laboratory. In terms of emerging capabilities, I think there are two we talked a lot about in our presentation of the Annual Lab Plan. Our machine learning for science research portfolio continues to grow. We have well over a hundred projects involving machine learning for science across the Lab — everywhere at the Lab. Then, in a more specialized space, quantum information science is something that we’ve been a major player in, and quantum systems has become a very big opportunity for us.
Then, of course, we have a strong presence in water-energy research. There’s been enormous attention to remaking the electrical grid and what it means to have renewable energy, but very little attention to how we renew the water systems in the country. And in some ways, it’s just as important and in need of a new approach. This international challenge is a great match for the Lab.
We’re also right now in the middle of our campaign to build out our Biocampus, with the opening of the Integrative Genomics Building this fall, and having received federal approval to plan for a new BioEPIC building right next door. We’re making progress both on cleaning up the site and in identifying the scientific programming for BioEPIC that will put our research of the biology of the environment together in one place for the first time. This Lab is rapidly building for the future, and it’s pretty exciting.
German: What would you say are the biggest challenges for the Lab?
Witherell: As an ongoing challenge, the cost of living in the Bay Area. It affects the cost of every bid we get for building projects. It affects our ability to recruit promising researchers. It’s something all of the people at the Lab are dealing with in some way, and that’s something we have to manage. Then, our billion-dollar-plus worth of projects that are now planned. Science projects, building projects, infrastructure projects: broadly speaking, this is our greatest new challenge. We’ve gone from doing $20 million a year in projects to more than $200 million per year. We have had a period of time during which very little building was going on, and we will need to execute these major projects in a way that continues to earn the confidence of our stakeholders. So major project management is a new set of muscles we are developing. Finally, space. Although we’re building up our infrastructure rapidly, our programs are growing even faster. We have finite usable space, and we have to apply every square foot of it very wisely. That’s actually a great challenge for us, and everybody is feeling the pressure on space right now.
German: What do all these challenges mean for employees, and what’s your advice?
Witherell: My hope is that everyone here shares in the sense that we have the opportunity to do exciting research that addresses real problems and that we’re being supported very well. At the same time, I hope everyone also feels that they share the responsibility to make sure that we execute effectively. In the end, what does the nation need from us? Mostly it needs great science. That’s what we’re here to provide. And I think we are doing that, and I hope that everybody feels that they are an essential part of delivering that.
German: We’ve all seen and heard a great deal lately about inclusion, diversity, equity, accountability, what we call IDEA at the Lab. What changes do you hope to see from this effort?
Witherell: I would like everybody to think about inclusion, diversity, equity, and accountability as a routine part of doing their job. We’ve had this launch phase in the last few months to start to build a common language and to begin the process of inviting these conversations. We’d like to go from the launch phase to having it in orbit, where it’s there all the time. Just as people plan to do their work safely, we would like people to think about and feel responsible for our culture, and to make sure inclusion and respect are inseparable from our work. Every person at this Lab can help build and sustain a culture in which everyone feels they belong and can contribute fully.
German: Have you personally learned through this process, or grown to appreciate something in a new way?
Witherell: One of the things I’ve been surprised about was how many people have come up to me and said they’re really pleased that we’re doing this, that the Laboratory is giving this much attention to IDEA. I also understand that these can be very challenging discussions. Everyone’s experiences and comfort levels are different. It’s not just everybody feeling good about it, because we’re opening up conversations that are potentially hard for people, or that make people, in some sense, go against their first reaction. And our leaders will need to make sure we’re having these conversations and that we’re learning from them. But mostly I’ve been surprised how positive the response has been.
German: In your view, why is it important that a national science lab care about inclusion, diversity, equity, and accountability?
Witherell: This is part of a national discussion in which there has been much more attention to these issues by universities and by companies, which are seeing that it is in their interest in a tight job market, if they want to recruit and retain their people, to be seen as a leader in diversity and inclusion. So in one sense, it is a competitive advantage. I have talked to people who have taken jobs in the laboratory who have told me they first checked into how we’re doing in these areas. At the same time, and I think this is the more important reason, it is the right thing to do. I often use the photograph from 1939 of all these people with E.O. Lawrence: great leaders at a young age doing these great things, a practice we are trying to sustain. But all the scientists are white males, and that is not the Lab we see today. If we want to have the best ideas, we need to bring in the best people from every background and make them feel welcome here and that they are contributing. As a national laboratory, we should be relentless in welcoming all perspectives, because a variety of perspectives brings new ideas and approaches.
German: If you look back in the last 12 months or so, what was your favorite science highlight or accomplishment?
Witherell: I love all my science highlights equally, as director of a great lab, but the things that are on my mind recently…I really enjoyed the stories and videos of the droplets that have been magnetized and can be controlled. I think that’s just a magical thing and I know we don’t yet know where that will lead, but that’s a really great breakthrough. I will say the other thing was seeing the first light through the collector at DESI [Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument]. It was a really thrilling thing to see. Then personally, for me, being involved in the ZEPLIN noisy dark matter experiment. I started working on that about eight years ago, even though I’ve not been one of the ones leading the charge, seeing that it is ready to be installed is very exciting to me.
German: Is there anything you’d like to add?
Witherell: Yes. Leading this laboratory is a great privilege and continues to be the most satisfying job I’ve had in my career, and I thank everyone here for making this such a pleasure. Our goal and challenge is to renew this Laboratory so it’s in great shape in 2031, which is our 100th anniversary. I think that’s the way we should be thinking about this now. Getting ready for our next hundred years.