Powering the national labs as engines of discovery

In May 2009, University of Chicago physicist Eric D. Isaacs took the helm of the Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago. Earlier in his career, Isaacs spent 13 years at Bell Laboratories, where he directed semiconductor and materials physics research. Recently, Science News senior editor Janet Raloff spoke with Isaacs about ways to reinvigorate research, especially on energy.

You’ve described corporate research centers such as Bell Labs as engines of discovery and as potential models for national labs. How so?

ERIC D. ISAACS “If science isn’t looking like a good career, young people won’t sign on. And without them, you won’t get the next wave of innovations.” Argonne’s Leadership/Flickr

Bell Labs conducted pioneering research in support of a mission. Even its basic research and open-ended science was connected through an internal grapevine and people to real problems. And that’s an important role that government labs need to fill. It’s what the Department of Energy refers to as needs-driven science.

Some of it will be high risk, which is not to say you try anything and everything. You choose intelligently and surround yourself with a community working on the same focus, always judging quality. Bell Labs had its own internal and external peer-review communities. And the internal one could be brutal, with someone always looking over your shoulder and asking, “Are you doing something really good?”

Along these lines, Argonne is organizing, more than ever, around a few big ideas, big challenges. The key is to have a mission that’s very clear. And ours is energy. One focus is energy storage, where we’re pulling together a very powerful, multidisciplinary effort with theorists, computational scientists, materials scientists and chemists to collectively address a major challenge.

You also need sufficient funding. Ours is still not at the level we need. Our president has done a lot, investing Recovery [Act] money in science budgets. We’ll also be collaborating closely with industry.

Finally, we need a staff of committed young people. And here, too, we need more. For instance, in programs like energy storage, I envision tripling our effort over the next few years, from maybe 30 or 40 people working on a $20 million effort to between 100 and 150 people working on a $50 million to $100 million program.

The Recovery Act phases out in a year. What then?

I can’t predict what will happen in the post-Recovery period. There will be a big deficit, and there will be other things competing for investments, like health care.

It’s always tempting at times like this to do what industry has done and reduce the science investment. But I would argue now is not the time to do that because our long-term problems are not going to go away. If we can continue to invest in research even in tough economic times, then we have the opportunity to recruit really great people. Remember, if science isn’t looking like a good career, young people won’t sign on. And without them, you won’t get the next wave of innovations — and you’re certainly not going to solve the energy problem. It’ll happen in China.

My worry is that our nation is running out of our “seed corn” — the great ideas to pursue in the future. Those ideas are coming out of academia and the government labs. But if we don’t continue to invest in these idea centers, we’re going to lose out — big.

You said the “ecosystem” for this is challenging. What do you mean?

In the past, monopolies like AT&T could develop everything from soup to nuts. Venture capitalists brought technologies to market another way: They bought small start-up companies, some to do the research and development, others to make products.

Today we need to achieve the same thing — do the science, technology development and product delivery — by piecing together elements from different organizations that together work as an ecosystem. From a structural point of view, this ecosystem consists of academia, government labs and industry. They have somewhat different missions: Universities do research and education, government labs do research and development, and industry delivers a product and makes a profit. Building such an ecosystem and keeping it productive and healthy will be a challenge. But we can do it.

You’ve talked about a need for retaining ownership of our energy technologies. What does that mean?

As estimated by the National Science Foundation, some 20 to 50 percent of our gross domestic product is based on innovative technologies, like the transistor and computer. But at some point these become commodities. Will we retain ownership of these technologies?

Ownership is not just intellectual property. IP is good, but if we don’t own the manufacturing of that technology, then we won’t own the full economic benefits.