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Economy, Energy, and Entrepreneurship: Los Alamos National Laboratory

Thu, 12/15/2011 - 3:54am
R&D Editors

Los Alamos National Laboratory's David Pesiri speaks on topics including funding, peer review, entrepreneurship, nanotechnology research, and communicating research missions in a social networking environment.

Paul Livingstone, Moderator: Tell us a little bit about yourselves, just to establish things and get everyone talking.

David Pesiri, Los Alamos National LaboratoryDavid Pesiri, division leader, Los Alamos National Laboratory Technology Transfer Division
I'm from Los Alamos National Laboratory. I'm the Division Leader of the Technology Transfer Division there. At Los Alamos, tech transfer is responsible for managing IP, non-federal work for others, sponsor search, as well as regional economic development.

My background is in technology and catalysis and material science and I was also involved with several start-ups. And so, I believe that I bring a bit of an outsider's view to our laboratory.

Livingstone: One aspect of government-funded research that may not be as well appreciated by, say, researchers at private companies, or even perhaps our readers, is how projects of national security or importance are assigned to national laboratories or research centers.

Identify how your organization fits into this process and if you've seen some changes recently or over time.

Pesiri: Los Alamos is a capabilities-based national security science laboratory. For topics that deal with national security, I think the role of the federal program office is central. And, that means that whether it is DOD (Department of Defense), or the intelligence community, or DHS (Department of Homeland Security), or other agencies, what's prescribed and what is assigned really has to do with the federal program.

That's where our Los Alamos program offices pick up and they're really the lead. They really shape how our laboratory either responds or thinks about performing in this context.

In most cases teamwork is essential between the program offices, both federal and at our site, the technical performing divisions, and the line organizations, then some support organizations when appropriate.

The thing that we're seeing more and more and makes this facet of our mission interesting, is where there are additional players involved. Increasingly, meeting the needs of our federal sponsors requires we engage with select industry sponsors. In such cases, tech transfer gets involved in forming the contractual basis for the partnership, including relationship, IP, and project management. And so, when there is a partnership or intellectual property involved, that's where it gets complicated; but, that's where really a large, multi-faceted laboratory can show how effective it can be.

Livingstone: In recent years, there's been discussion about the peer review process. And, there have been some questions about its effectiveness and even its integrity. What is your organization's opinion about the effectiveness of the current approach to peer review, which relies on anonymity and assumptions of honesty? And, explain changes that you'd like to see with this approach.

Pesiri: Los Alamos is very much a believer in and a participant in the peer review process with the obvious exception of our core weapons program, although our relationship with Livermore is at least partially in the same vein. I think this dates back to the history of the University of California and it's very much a part of our culture. It's a meaningful and important one.

I think striving to become the premiere national security science laboratory requires that our process includes a constant evaluation of and testing of our technical capabilities. So, we do a peer review approach to most everything, in how we publish, how we evaluate what we’re investing in and continually externally and internally reviewing our own capabilities.

In terms of shortcomings, and there are some in the peer review process, one of the things that we've tried to do recently is adopt a process that I think NIH does quite well. We use we use NDA to inform our reviewers that information being shared is considered important to maintaining our competitiveness and must be kept in confidence.

Not that signing a statement like that, either for our LDRD review or for some of our other reviews eliminates the problem. What I do think it does is it heightens the idea that conflict is something that we need to manage as peers and as colleagues. We really need to treat this with the utmost sensitivity. And, we now use this idea of acknowledgment of conflict or IP concerns for all of our LDRD reviews, for example. So, peer review, I think is essential to maintain our best capability, but we’re trying to always do it a little bit better.

Livingstone: Research and funding in nanoscale technology has been increasing for both basic research and increasingly in product development. Recent findings are shedding some light on the effect of nanomaterials on biological systems. I'm wondering if this affects any research that is taking place at your organization. And, if you feel that some more regulation may soon follow as a result of some of these findings?

Pesiri: The uncertainty surrounding the effect of nanomaterials is one of several research topics that influence how Los Alamos carries out its mission. And, I would broaden the discussion to include genetic engineering, the use of beryllium, and several common topics that, I believe, are important in this context.

Our laboratory expects that safety and security overarch everything we do. It's part of our culture and it's part of our mission. In the case of nanomaterials, we have a very deliberate and structured way that we approach the risks and potential health effects. It's born from our leadership. It followed by our technical community. It's driven by our health and safety professionals and it's overseen by our site office. In the case of nanomaterials safety, this has all been specifically addressed through real demonstration of leadership.

It's possible for us to monitor and understand and, in many cases, control the known risks in dealing with these materials. I think, Los Alamos is behaving very prudently and responsibility with nanomaterials. But, it also just underscores the fact that in many technical disciplines, there will always be risks and or uncertainties. Those are realities and it's our obligation to control them and to behave responsibly. I believe this is what Los Alamos's approach has been.

Livingstone: How does your organization make adjustments to changes in funding or times when funding seems uncertain? And, that seems to have been quite a bit recently.

Pesiri: Los Alamos has really embraced a capabilities model for delivering science and engineering solutions to our customers. So, we strive to possess and maintain technical capabilities that transcend any single project, sponsor need, economic situation, or political climate. The reality is that R&D funding is really stressed these days. Our laboratory is certainly driven by the weapons program and that's no surprise.

I believe that our relatively conservative approach to a capabilities model helps to level out some of the funding down terms and helps to make sure that Los Alamos can preserve the right technical skills and tools for the nation. So, I think it's this model of keeping capabilities that are important, independent of the environment that is a real important feature of what we do.

Livingstone: Now, even if Solyndra represents a single event and perhaps a small percentage of this type of government loan guarantee, there is the risk of other publicized commercial failures related to government funded research. What will this type of possibility mean for your organization? How do you plan to respond to such events? And, what are your thoughts about the current situation?

Pesiri: A failure's never good for research, particularly when precious taxpayer money is involved, but in reality failure is part of technology. I think we can all acknowledge—and I personally believe—that the large bets that the Department of Energy is putting on these grand energy challenges is completely appropriate. I also believe that the acceptance of risk, be it technical or market risk, is really what sets this nation apart from all others.

There'll be very good lessons learned from Solyndra for example, but I hope one of the outcomes is not an increased level of cynicism about federally funded R&D and public private partnerships in particular. It's clear that the U.S. needs to win here and it reminds us that, although we have lessons to learn, maintaining the path forward and continuing to invest is really the prudent option.

Livingstone: The economy's going through a difficult time, making politics also very difficult. What's your perspective on how government-funded research can really help turn things around or at least get things moving forward a little more quickly now that they appear to be a little stuck? How can this type of research stimulate the economy, perhaps stimulate jobs?

Pesiri: In this difficult economy, research and development is a meaningful way to translate precious federal dollars into economic growth and the creation of wealth. One way to really accomplish this is fostering start-ups based on federal technologies. I think it’s widely recognized that start-ups and small companies are the job creation engines for our economy. And, start-ups also have the important advantage of being very counter cyclical.

So, start-ups are very successful when talent and attention are available for innovation. I see this as a really precious time to put more technologies into play in the form of start-ups.

Livingstone: One of the important things for government-funded research centers and organizations is to communicate some of their work to the public themselves because they're the ones doing the research and they would be the best to communicate it. How do you approach this task of communicating some of the work that you do and how are you adapting to some rapidly changing technologies that allow you to do that?

Pesiri: Los Alamos is experimenting with social networking and some of the new media tools, but quite candidly it's really not something we're expert at yet. For example, we are currently evaluating whether we can use Twitter to announce licensing opportunities. Our overall policy is that our laboratory and our tech transfer mission is really valuable when we are creating stories that endure. We really recognize that our brand is a connection or combination of thousands of conversations, and we need to make sure that we're intentional and deliberate in telling the right stories to demonstrate the benefit of an institution such as ours.

And so, whatever the form, we want to make sure that the stories we tell are prudently and carefully crafted and that they tell the story about what we’re working to do for the nation.

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