Nano center tightens focus to build on early success
FRANK MUNGER, firstname.lastname@example.org
January 9, 2008
The Center for Nanophase Materials Science at Oak Ridge National Laboratory was the first of five federally funded nanoscience research facilities to come into being within the past couple of years, and it's also been the busiest.
According to ORNL officials, the new lab attracted about 300 scientific users during fiscal 2007 - surpassing the goal and pretty much stretching the capabilities of the lab in its first full year of operations.
That's impressive, and the $65 million facility, which is directed by Linda Horton, is getting good marks from people in high places.
"The center here is conceivably the best of the five," Ray Orbach, the Department of Energy's undersecretary for science, said during a visit to Oak Ridge last week.
That's a pretty strong statement, considering that Orbach's Office of Science has oversight of all five nanoscience centers, where researchers study and manipulate materials at the atomic scale. So, presumably, he'd be bathed in an embarrassing light if it were discovered that he said the same flattering things at each site. Right?
The other nanoscience centers are located at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois, Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, and Sandia and Los Alamos National Laboratories in New Mexico.
It's been a good start at Oak Ridge. No question about that. Everything, however, isn't perfect.
A peer review committee with roots in DOE's Basic Energy Sciences program took a long look at CNMS some months ago and came up with some suggestions. The bottom line: focus, focus, focus.
The reviewers thought the Oak Ridge facilities might be trying to do too much, spreading its research agenda wider than warranted.
Horton said one of the reasons for the broad interests at CNMS was the broad materials expertise that already existed at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. There were multiple areas of research interest with world-class reputations, so there was a natural temptation to pursue all of them, she said.
As a result of that review, the Oak Ridge staff did a strategic plan and did, in fact, throttle back its research focus to three themes: instrumentation for looking at the functionality of nanomaterials; emerging behavior of nanostructures; and synthesis of polymeric and hybrid materials.
Horton said she viewed the critique in a positive way.
"This was not saying we were doing anything wrong. This was saying we can do things better," she said.
It was particularly important to have such a review early in the life of a new research center to make sure the path forward is freed of unnecessary obstacles to success.
"This was a course correction, not a redirection," Horton said.
Mason noted: "Focus is always important. You can't do everything. You have to pick things that you're absolutely the best in the world at and concentrate on them.
"The huge user interest in CNMS during its first year was great, but it also came "pretty close to the limit that we can handle at the current funding level," the ORNL director said.
The operating budget is about $18 million a year.
"I think what we don't want to do is get into a situation where we're making promises that we can't keep," Mason said. "It's always better to under-promise and over-deliver. So I think we want to make sure we do that with CNMS and not over-extend ourselves and then have people coming in and find they can't get the work done."
Orbach toured ORNL during his visit last week, and he said he witnessed firsthand the synergy among the different research facilities.
He said he stopped by the High Flux Isotope Reactor, where scientists were using neutron-diffraction equipment to analyze the structure of material samples that had been formulated at the nanoscience center.
"That's exactly what we hoped would happen," he said.
Senior writer Frank Munger may be reached at 865-342-6329.
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