Training, mentorship, talent databases, streamlined operations, and a unified brand were ideas presented from latest cohorts
The 17 national labs across the U.S. Department of Energy complex have solved some of the most important problems in science over the past 100 years.
The past two years have been a time for change in the DOE system, and opportunities have emerged from the challenges faced by scientists and staff. While shifting to remote or hybrid work situations, they found innovative ways to contend with a global pandemic.
Emerging leaders at several national labs recently gathered to take stock and consider how to use the lessons learned to prepare the national lab workforce for 2025 and beyond. They participated in the Strategic Laboratory Leadership Program, a non-degree University of Chicago Booth Executive Education program for high-potential national lab scientists and staff to learn leadership skills from world-class Booth faculty, network with their peers, and prepare for more senior leadership roles.
For the program’s capstone projects this year, participants split up into five teams and generated ideas for how DOE labs can best recruit, retain, and inspire a diverse and inclusive workforce through the middle of the decade and into the future.
The SLLP originally included scientists and staff from Argonne National Laboratory and Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, and it has expanded to include participants from seven more national laboratories: Idaho National Laboratory, Jefferson Lab, Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Ames Laboratory, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
That gave teams the opportunity to take a holistic view of issues. During Strategic Discovery Experiment capstone events in March and June, they presented their ideas to leaders from DOE, the laboratories, and the University of Chicago.
Recruiting and retaining the labs’ greatest resource: people
At the top of the list of issues for the next five years was both retaining lab employees and recruiting the diverse, inclusive workforce of the future. Since the onset of the pandemic, the old rules have changed, participants said.
“The marketplace has become employee-controlled, and national labs have lost talent to industry,” said Ning Kang, department manager for Idaho National Laboratory’s Power & Energy Systems Department. “But this also provides a great opportunity. We can win the battle of talent recruitment, development, and retention.”
Kang’s team recommended rebranding the DOE complex to show a unified national lab system that encourages an inclusive community, with members of different genders and ethnicities from around the world.
The June cohort focused on ideas for identifying staff who were interested in leadership opportunities, and providing support such as opportunities for mentorship, job shadowing, and rotational leadership training.
“What if, as national laboratories, we said that leadership was just as important as the research itself?” asked Jana Beyerlin, chief operations officer for human resources with Idaho National Laboratory. “As stewards of our national labs, we should invest in a leadership framework, and consistently invest in cultivating empathetic, outcome-oriented leaders. Producing excellent leaders would have a positive impact on our nation critical goals and our national laboratory culture as well.”
Building better teams
DOE labs have been most successful when they gather big teams to tackle large, interdisciplinary problems, like mapping the universe or developing nuclear power.
“National labs are so well set up to do the big science that nobody else can do,” said Corinne Scown, deputy division director for research in the Energy Analysis and Environmental Impacts Division at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. “We can rapidly mobilize big, interdisciplinary teams to tackle big challenges.”
But bringing those teams together across labs can be difficult. To smooth out the process, several teams recommend creating a DOE national lab talent database, where scientists and engineers looking to build new teams for certain projects could find exactly the right person for the job.
Teams recommended creating a better system for sending scientists and staff off to detail assignments, sabbaticals, and rotations across the DOE lab complex. That would involve standardizing cost structures, training requirements, and contracting arrangements, and could even involve a more streamlined process for new funding.
Standardizing technology and infrastructure
Many teams also called for standardized technology and software across labs. Even at the basic level, each lab uses their own videoconferencing and collaboration software, and “if we had the same analysis and design tools across the labs, it would make our scientists’ lives easier, and it would be much cheaper to operate, as well,” said Renuka Rajput-Ghoshal, a senior staff engineer at Jefferson Lab.
One way to bring together teams and streamline processes would be to establish an 18th national lab – a virtual National Collaboration Laboratory, one team proposed. Such a lab could harness the power of the complex’s human resources while standardizing processes and facilitating intellectual property agreements.
“We would have a new lab that really leverages human collaboration across all labs,” said Susannah Tringe, director of the Environmental Genomics and Systems Biology Division at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
Another team suggested creating a National Laboratory Metaverse, a virtual 3D environment where lab employees could hold meetings, collaborate, and even give laboratory tours. Such an environment could allow employees to work remotely while still giving them the opportunity to have that spontaneous five-minute conversation by the water cooler.
“The key here is to be able to merge these physical and virtual infrastructures,” said Marc Cohen, chief information officer at Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. “We can do things like make stronger communities.”
In the June cohort, participants noted that the solutions reflected surprisingly uniform themes, such as mentorship, succession planning, though participants hailed from all over the country and had a wide variety of backgrounds.
“A lot of the value of this program is in the cohort. We represent the culture and identities that are in all of our labs,” said Greg Tchilliguirnian, head of instrumentation and control group leader at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. “I had the opportunity to really get to know everyone in this room. That value cannot be understated.”
As the SLLP launches new cohorts in the coming months and years, the camaraderie and idea generation will continue.
The SLLP is supported by the UChicago Joint Task Force Initiative, which helps Argonne and Fermilab achieve mission success by opening channels of frequent communication and collaboration across institutions.
“We need to grow our own leaders for the health and benefit of the national laboratory complex.” said Juan de Pablo, UChicago executive vice president for science, innovation, national laboratories, and global initiatives. His office oversees the SLLP. “This program has trained a diverse group of more than 300 national lab professionals, many of whom are now in leadership roles, including laboratory directors. That is just one of the multiple measures of the impact that this program is having.”
-by Emily Ayshford