BY MAIRE O’NEILL
Los Alamos National Laboratory Director Thom Mason was the keynote speaker at the recent presentation of the Richard P. Feynman Innovation Prizes at SALA Event Center honoring tech-transfer achievements that are commercially ready in multiple areas. He called the work presented at the DisrupTECH sessions earlier in the day by innovators and entrepreneurs “quite amazing stuff” that one way or another ties back to the Lab’s national security mission.
“It’s not just deterrence. There are things that we do in support of nuclear nonproliferation and putting packages on satellites so that we have situational awareness about what’s going on – collecting and safeguarding nuclear materials that prevent dirty bombs. If you look at the challenges that we’re confronted with in terms of managing global affairs in a world where there are nuclear weapons, you have the challenge of preventing nuclear war – it might be climate change,” Mason said. “If those possibilities exist, you ought to be able to do something about it and we’re doing something about it. At the same time, because of the existence of nuclear weapons, they bring with them actual probability for the wars.”
He noted that there is actual data on this now and that the experiment has been running since 1945 with fewer people having died in armed conflict as a percentage of the population since 1945 than for the entire recorded history before that.
“It’s because people pause and think about it. We’re engaged on both sides of that risk equation – reducing the risk of global catastrophes of whichever sort they may be and enhancing the ability of restraints on bad human behavior through deterrence,” Mason said.
He said transferring the results of LANL’s work into real world solutions that go beyond nuclear deterrence is complicated.
“We are a government lab, which means there are a lot of things that have to be navigated. That’s why we have the Richard B. Feynman Center for Innovation to do all that and actually typically our partners may not. They need help navigating it,” Mason said. “The Feynman Center is kind of an independent matching device to map our technical expertise onto the outside world through the lens of all the rules and regulations that exist for federal institutions. They take projects and help start-ups for the Lab such as Viome, Pebble, Descartes and UbiQd.”
Another element is public-private partnerships, he said, where things get very expensive while trying to scale them up and get them deployed.
“Usually, for a lot of the technologies that come out of the labs, that’s not really the government role to take that risk and do that scale. It requires private sector financing and risk-taking, which is not always something that governments are really good at,” Mason said.
He commented that if you want to get the attention of Congress, what you have to say is, “Putin, Oppenheimer, China”.
“It’s the combination of those three that’s really important. Obviously Putin and the events that are going on in Europe with the second invasion of Ukraine and armed conflict on a scale that hasn’t happened since World War II and the rallying, the mobilizing, of not just the United States but all our real allies, has had a pretty transformational effect in terms of the attention people are paying to national security,” Mason said.
He noted that “Oppenheimer” is both a reference to a film that’s captured everyone’s imagination and a reference to “history and why we’re here”.
“China maybe represents the more profound, longer term challenge, and fortunately right now although the interactions with Russia are very much military in nature – not in direct armed conflict obviously between Russia and the U.S., but there’s a war going on. In the case of China, although there’s kind of a military intervention, it’s about economic and technological competition, and while as the Oppenheimer story tells, this Lab was born very much out of conflict and military dimension. While we still play an important an important role there, I think we’re very important in terms of economic and technological competition and that’s what this (DisrupTECH) event is about,” Mason said. “The bottom line is I think our mission hasn’t been as visible. It never went away but it hasn’t been as visible or present in the public mind for quite some time.”
He said in order to execute the mission, a lot of scientific and engineering abilities are needed across the “incredibly rich and diverse range of disciplines, techniques, tools and people”.
“It’s that collection that really makes us special,” Mason said.
He noted that a couple of years ago in China, the President of China said in a speech to the People’s Congress, that China was going to create comprehensive national laboratories, so that immediately kicked off a big competition between Beijing and Shanghai as to who was going to get the first of these. Mason said the Chinese government’s research system consisted of Chinese Academies of Science.
“There are more than 100 of these institutes in different topical areas such as ceramics, computers, protein structure, and they operate fiercely independently. They’re physically dispersed across the country and as a result, you don’t get what happens at a place like Los Alamos where we would have in the province probably 20 institutes in different areas in terms of nuclear materials or high-performance computing and data analysis,” Mason said. “I think the Chinese recognized that they were kind of missing something and now they’re trying to create it. I’m sure they’ll be successful but I haven’t been there recently to check on them to see how they’re doing.”
Mason said the U.S. doesn’t have to embark on an effort to make comprehensive national laboratories because it already has them.
“So we ought to take advantage of them,” Mason said.
He added that the DisrupTECH event is about the people.
“If you go back and look at the history of the people who were here at the birth of the Lab, not just Oppenheimer, the really impressive thing is not just one individual, but the collection of people who came together and interacted in a way where each one of them was able to do more because of those who were around them. So there was a collective effect where they were all better because of the example and the intellectual competition and the cooperation with their peers,” Mason said.