United we stand

Tim Meyer

The world changed on Tuesday, Sept. 16. It may have been hard to notice if you weren’t in Room 50 on the ground floor of the Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C.

The entire family of Department of Energy labs got together to host a National Lab Day on Capitol Hill at the suggestion of the Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz. The event was themed “America’s National Laboratory System: A Powerhouse of Science, Engineering and Technology.”

Two aspects of the event highlighted a potential new paradigm for Fermilab and the other DOE labs: We are part of the same family with shared objectives and a common vision for enhancing the country.

The most noticeable feature of the 14 exhibit booths was something that was actually hard to find among all of the accomplishments, ambitions and activities presented and enthusiastically discussed: the calling out of any particular lab. It was rare to see a specific lab mentioned. The results were owned by and credited to the entire national laboratory system — the labs, the facilities, the site offices, headquarters and program staff, and partners and collaborators. Rather than jockeying for position and debating who was more instrumental in advancing science and society, each laboratory selflessly promoted the spectrum of results. For instance, Fermilab worked with other labs to construct an interactive, touch-panel guide to DOE discovery science that mapped onto the history of the universe. It was a beautiful display (and will actually come to Wilson Hall) and a brilliant way to organize a large part of the discovery science supported by DOE in particle and nuclear physics, astronomy and cosmology, plasma physics and more.

The second remarkable feature of the event was a panel discussion introduced and moderated by the Secretary of Energy. The event kicked off with the announcement of a National Laboratory Caucus in the Senate, co-chaired by Illinois’ own Senator Dick Durbin and Idaho’s Jim Risch. Topping that, however, were the contributions of the panel members. Norm Augustine from Lockheed Martin talked about how the national labs are a primary engine for basic science that fuels national progress. Harold Varmus of the National Cancer Institute spoke about the importance of basic physics, chemistry, biology and medicine. Jennifer Rumsey from Cummins Inc. talked about how her company relies on DOE laboratories to develop and maintain the deep, fundamental knowledge that improves state-of-the-art engines manufactured and sold by Cummins. Clark Gellings at the Electric Power Research Institute talked about the role of the labs in energy generation and distribution. He then pointed to the growing number of collaborations among the labs themselves as an important signal to private industry and international organizations that the DOE labs can be reliable, valuable partners. Each of these stakeholders is external to the DOE system and represented a fresh, third-party validation of everything that we do.

So what does this all boil down to? I say it represents the next step in how we think about Fermilab and DOE, our primary stakeholder. DOE has been the quiet steward of one the most powerful science and technology assets in the United States for decades, and it is time to celebrate and promote that mission. The national laboratories are a joint system, a symbiotic collection of talents and resources that work together to achieve a whole greater than the sum of its parts. This is a key moment for DOE and for us as we look at a future where the competition for resources is fiercer than ever.