Lab Director Mike Witherell and other members of Lab senior leadership will update employees on the current status and future direction of Berkeley Lab’s research mission and operations on Monday, Oct. 19, from 11 a.m. to noon at streaming.lbl.gov.
Lab Chief Communications Officer John German sat down with Director Witherell recently for a sneak peek at his talk and a look at some of the most pressing issues for the Laboratory.
John German: As you look back on the surprises and the progress at the Lab over the last 12 months — PSPS, COVID, plus some major programmatic wins for the Lab — what are your thoughts about the next 12 months?
Mike Witherell: The PSPS events in October seemed like extraordinary challenges to the entire Laboratory, and I was proud of how well we were able to manage our response. Looking back now, those events seem like only the warm-up for what has happened so far in 2020.
It’s still hard to imagine the magnitude of the impact from COVID-19 — the lives lost and disrupted, the jobs that disappeared, and the changes in the way we live. On top of this, the nation has experienced acts of extreme violence motivated by racism. And in addition we have a national election, which brings with it additional uncertainty and change. And in California, we have seen people losing lives and homes to fires of unprecedented intensity. It can be overwhelming.
With all this going on, I continue to be very impressed at the dedication, resilience, and creativity that the people of Berkeley Lab have demonstrated. I also am pleased at the understanding and humanity people have shown to those around them. I don’t see how our people could have handled it any better.
Meanwhile, the long-term future for the Lab looks better than ever. The federal government has shown extraordinary commitment to this future by trusting us to manage large new projects — the Quantum Systems Accelerator, the Cosmic Microwave Background facility to be built in Chile and the Antarctic, and the Liquid Sunlight Alliance, for example. And that is on top of the ongoing major upgrades to NERSC, ESnet, and, of course, the ALS, which is the largest single project we have had here in 30 years. Our largest research teams have been hitting every pitch out of the park, it seems. Then, to top it off, faculty scientist Jennifer Doudna last week shared a Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Despite the challenges of 2020, there is a lot to be proud of right now.
And I’m pleased to welcome Noël Bakhtian to the Lab on November 2. Noël will be leading the Lab’s Energy Storage Center as its inaugural director. The center will be advancing all kinds of energy storage technologies: battery and fuel cell research, chemical and thermal storage, mechanical storage, flexible generation and loads, and more.
German: The Lab has a new quantum research center, the Quantum Systems Accelerator, and last year launched the Advanced Quantum Testbed. Beyond those two new focus areas, the Lab also is doing quantum science across three areas, with funding from four DOE program areas. What does the Lab’s overall quantum portfolio look like?
Witherell: We made the decision four years ago to make Quantum Information Science and Technology (QIST) a high-priority initiative across the Lab. Our intention from the beginning was to become one of the leading QIST centers in the world, and I think we are well on our way to realizing that goal. In FY 18 and 19, we were awarded about $70 M for QIST funding from the Advanced Computing, Basic Energy Sciences, and High Energy Physics programs at DOE. This is a recognition of all the talent we brought to the area and is what we need to accelerate our growth of quantum capabilities at the Lab. That prepared the way for us to lead a large Lab-university consortium to propose the Quantum Systems Accelerator, together with Sandia. We will be a leader in this field, which is the most promising new computing technology for a long time.
German: Along with the recent major federal quantum funding announcements, the federal government also this month announced several hundred million dollars in AI funding. What is the state of AI and Machine Learning research at the Lab?
Witherell: At the same time we made QIST a lab-wide priority, we did the same for Machine Learning for Science, also known as AI for Science. Both of these investments have worked out better for the Lab than I could have guessed at the time. The Federal Government developed large initiatives in QIST and AI, with much of it focused on the DOE, just as we were showing what we could do in these areas. We now have well over 100 research projects in which Lab scientists use Machine Learning to discover new materials, to search for dark matter, to improve the energy efficiency of buildings, and to extract more breakthroughs from the explosion of data coming from our facilities. What we will be seeing is that ML will transform our science across the Laboratory. One example is how much better we’re able to control the beam at the ALS.
German: What are the next big opportunities for the Lab, in the near future and further in the future?
Witherell: We are already taking a lead role in developing the future of biotechnology and in growing the future bioeconomy. This future will be driven by new genomic technologies, computational and data science, advanced bioimaging, and new sensing technologies. We have great strengths in all of the platform technologies that are poised to lead a revolution in biotechnology.
I believe that our next major Lab-wide priority will be in negative emissions technologies (NET). We already see that we are not going to be able to avoid the impacts of human activity on the global climate. In addition to reducing emissions, we need to develop technologies that help to reverse this impact. A 2019 National Academies report on Negative Emissions Technologies and Reliable Sequestration published a research agenda in support of this grand challenge. They point out that we urgently need research on enhancing soil carbon storage in agriculture, on producing bioenergy with carbon capture and sequestration, on carbon mineralization, and on other approaches, to see if they can be executed economically at scale. No other Laboratory has deeper capabilities in these areas than we do.
We also have promising possibilities in electron microscopy, energy storage, hydrogen fuel cells, and materials discovery. So there is much to be optimistic about. I hope you’ll join me on Oct. 19 when I’ll talk about these and more.
German: What would you say are the biggest challenges for the Lab?
Witherell: Our biggest immediate challenge is organizing our Laboratory to operate in a mixed-mode, with some people working at the Lab, some people working from home, and many people doing some of each. We need to take care of all of our people so that they can do their best work and feel included in the life of the Lab.
Also, we need to keep building up our engineering capabilities at the Lab so that we can turn all of our scientific ideas into world-leading instrumentation. Our existing engineering capabilities have been fundamental to our success in ALS-U, CMB-S4, and the upgrades for the Large Hadron Collider. Attracting more engineering talent to the Lab is one key to our continued success in the future.
German: What are you hearing about the FY21 budget?
Witherell: Everything I’ve seen leads me to believe that the Lab’s fiscal situation should remain relatively stable for the next year. We are now in a continuing resolution until December 11, and we won’t know the full story until an Appropriations budget is passed, which might happen later in December. But I expect the Lab to continue growing, which is reassuring at a time when so much of the economy is shrinking.
German: The global pandemic has really changed the way we work. What has most surprised you about our adaptation to the new normal, and do you have experiences or revelations of your own about working from home?
Witherell: My impression is that people have been doing remarkably well given the additional pressures of doing their work from home, and all the stresses that come with that, having children home from school, and so forth. I know it’s been challenging for everyone, and that the stresses of work are often the least difficult of the challenges.
Personally, although my wife and I have been married a long time, we have never observed each other at work as closely as we have in the last six months. I think we have both learned important things about each other from this experience. Fortunately, no bad surprises in either direction.
German: A lot of focus and attention is being given to discrimination, racism, and racial violence. How does this change our IDEA efforts?
Witherell: I believe that the integration of IDEA into our Lab culture over the past two years has made it possible for us to stay unified as a Lab community, in spite of all of the challenges we’ve faced. Our Chief Diversity Officer, Lady Idos, and our Learning and Organizational Development staff in Human Resources, have been doing a great job in helping all of us respond to the multiple crises we are facing. I have been inspired by the number of IDEA-related activities that have sprung up in Divisions and workgroups across the Lab. We need to remember, however, that improving culture takes constant attention and effort over years, not just weeks.
German: What are you most proud of?
Witherell: It is a great privilege to lead the remarkable people who work at our Lab. I am very proud of the fact that the people at the Lab trust me to lead them, even in difficult times. My hope is to act in a way that deserves that trust.
German: Is there anything you’d like to add?
Witherell: Keeping our community safe in this pandemic depends on everybody paying attention to several layers of protection, no one of which is perfect. We need to keep this up for several more months. Let’s keep reminding ourselves that our collective health is worth that effort.
Join Director Witherell on Monday, Oct. 19, at 11 a.m. Add this calendar reminder.