Berkeley Lab has seen a lot of change over the last few years. The research mission is growing, with major new programs in most research areas and emerging opportunities to help address many of the nation’s most urgent challenges. 

New construction is under way on the main hill site as part of a historic facility and infrastructure modernization. And the Lab’s people continue to deliver on the mission from widely distributed locations in the aftermath of a pandemic that reset global expectations about how and where people work. 

In this Q&A, Lab Director Mike Witherell offered his thoughts on the Lab’s current directions and its most urgent challenges. Chief Communications Officer John German conducted the interview.

On Thursday, January 26, at 9 a.m. Director Witherell will host a virtual live Town Hall on Zoom for Lab employees where he will discuss recent mission and operations highlights, news from Washington, D.C., and more. Questions can be sent in advance to communications@lbl.gov.


John German: Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts. Let’s start with science. The Lab’s research mission seems very well matched with the nation’s priorities right now. What is the state of the Lab’s science mission today?

Mike Witherell: Our capabilities couldn’t be matched better to the nation’s most urgent needs. We’re addressing national priorities on accelerating decarbonization, on developing the next generation of computers and quantum information technologies, on pioneering the technologies that will be needed for tomorrow’s microelectronics, and on advancing biomanufacturing. Understanding the resilience of ecosystems under environmental stress is something we’re putting a lot of effort into. And, of course, we are still leaders in the national programs to explore the universe and fundamental subatomic physics. We continue to be the Lab we always have been since our founding: leading researchers dedicated to exploring large complex problems and offering impactful solutions for science and humankind.

German: What are some of the Lab’s recent major research achievements, and what are some of the biggest opportunities you see for the Lab?

Witherell: Well, this has been a period of building new scientific capabilities at the Laboratory. We completed an enormous NERSC upgrade and brought the Perlmutter facility into operation. This opens up a new era of computational power, allowing us to accelerate the science for thousands of DOE-supported researchers. The upgraded ESnet introduced a new, faster research network to support the world science community, as well, in an age of ever-demanding datasets. That will make it possible to do experiments in unprecedented ways, and this is really revolutionizing the use of computing for science across the system.

And then, the two large facilities we are operating for dark energy and dark matter experiments, DESI and LZ, have published initial results showing that they’re operating extremely well, and we’re going to see some terrifically exciting results from those experiments very soon. They’ve demonstrated their power to help solve some of the biggest mysteries of our universe.

Finally, our climate and energy research are having great impact in several areas. Our researchers are now able to estimate the impact of climate change on the intensity of storms, and even predict what the changing climate will mean for the frequency of atmospheric river events; these questions are very relevant to us here in California — I’m sitting here right now with the power out at my house due to the storm. 

Our research has made the news a lot lately, including in renewable energy, batteries and energy storage, grid resiliency and interconnection, smart roofs, and even air quality in schools – these are all very important and relevant issues these days.

German: You and Carol Burns [Deputy Lab Director for Research] recently spent some time in Washington D.C. You visited the White House, and you both met with many of our key sponsors. What did you learn? 

Witherell: Right. All the national lab directors came to Washington together that week, and mostly we were talking to people in the Biden Administration and White House who have the major responsibility for science and technology, and especially the clean energy part. We also talked to the heads of the National Security Council and the National Economic Council and other leaders. In those discussions I learned a lot about what they need most from us to address the grand challenges in energy, environment, health, security, and the economy. And in almost every case the labs have assets to bring to these problems, together and separately.

Carol Burns was there with the national lab chief research officers, too, and the lab directors talked with them and with a few officials in the Department of Energy about how we can do our urgently needed research faster, how we might break down some of the bureaucratic obstacles that can slow us down.

German: For the second year in a row, the University of California’s grades from DOE for managing the Lab were all ‘A-’ or above. This was the best performance evaluation among all the national lab management contractors. What are your takeaways from that? 

Witherell: Well, first of all, I’d like people at the Laboratory, both those doing our research and those enabling our research, to understand what an impressive standard we’ve achieved together here. It’s very rare to be recognized for such a high level of performance across everything we do, from research to upgrading facilities to safely and efficiently running the Lab. No national lab has earned grades like that even once since 2009, and we’ve done it twice in a row now. This is a great accomplishment for everyone who works at the Laboratory, no matter what your role is. That is what Team Science looks like.

So why does it matter? Well, because of our level of performance, we have earned a lot of trust and confidence as stewards of the Lab’s people, research, and resources — the things we have committed to take good care of. And because of that trust, in addition to supporting our great science, DOE and the federal government have been investing more than ever in the Lab’s future: with the ALS Upgrade and the BioEPIC building, which is going up across the street, but also with replacing the building we used to call the cafeteria and rebuilding our utilities infrastructure. All that’s been supported, both because of the excellence of our science and, crucially, because they trust that we’re making the best use of the dollars that we are entrusted with.

German: UC manages the Lab under contract with DOE. The current 10-year contract extension ends in May 2025. What contract-related activity can we expect between now and then?

Witherell: The University of California is the management and operating contractor, or M&O contractor, for Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. Almost all the national labs are managed like this under what’s known as the GOCO model; GOCO stands for “government owned, contractor operated.” Because of UC’s excellent performance, its DOE contract to manage the Lab has already been extended to the maximum term of 20 years, with the current extension expiring in May of 2025. So we expect that DOE’s Office of Science will reach a decision before that date on whether to hold a full competition for a new contract or negotiate a non-competitive extension with UC. Our performance record will play an important role in making that decision.

German: This time of year we usually see a lot of discussion, and sometimes anxiety, related to the annual federal budget cycle. Where is Congress in negotiating the FY23 budget, and how is federal support shaping up for science, for DOE, and for Berkeley Lab?

Witherell: Well, it was a great relief to see that on December 23, just before our winter break, Congress completed work on an omnibus appropriations bill and passed an FY23 budget. This is good news because we know we aren’t going to be on a continuing resolution for the whole year like we were for the first three months of the fiscal year that started on October 1. Mostly, the budget that passed held on to the improvements that the House and Senate had put into the President’s Budget Request. So we’re in reasonably good shape. The DOE Office of Science, for example, is up about 8% over FY22, as is the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. Of course, that just about keeps up with inflation during this time, but it does do that.

We were quite worried about the operations budgets for the user facilities at the start of the process, but the House and Science appropriators recognized the problem and gave them a 5% increase, almost keeping up with inflation. All of our highest priority projects have what they need to keep making progress.

We also expect to see a lot of funding opportunity announcements, or FOAs, in the new year, as DOE had to wait for an FY23 budget to be passed before they could launch new activities. Almost every area of the Laboratory will see new programmatic opportunities early this year, so many of our people are going to be really busy writing proposals over the coming months, I think.

German: You’ve previously talked about this period in the Lab’s history as a time in which we are doing great science while also preparing the Lab for the next era. Many modernization projects are starting up this year, and lots of construction is already under way. How will the construction affect us in the near term, and what new capabilities will the Lab gain?

Witherell: At the start of my term I realized that the Lab had suffered many years from a lack of sustained investment in its facilities and infrastructure, as had the whole federal complex. Frankly, this is a widespread problem among the national labs. We all want to spend as much of our annual budgets on science as we possibly can. But over the long term, this approach leads to higher maintenance costs for, and even failures of, the infrastructures and facilities that are needed to do the science; we call the backlog of repairs and upkeep “deferred maintenance.” And, as a historic laboratory, we had even more catching up to do than anybody else. 

So we set out to make the case with DOE and the entire federal government that in order to keep producing world-leading research for the nation into the future, we were going to need to make large investments in modernizing the Lab today. And we have done that; we’ve had one round of facilities and infrastructure modernization already, and we’re starting new projects this year. 

Right now, of course, we’re doing the ALS-Upgrade, the largest facility modernization project in the history of the Laboratory, which will put our light source at the forefront of exploratory science for another generation or two. The BioEPIC building will forge new biological and earth systems discovery across scales, from microbes to ecosystems. And renewing our underground infrastructure, what we call our “linear assets,” and replacing the cafeteria building — all of this will allow us to enable research and provide amenities on site that will help us continue to attract and recruit the best talent. Most importantly, these improvements will also make life better for everybody who is already here.

I know it’s a pain sometimes having trucks navigating our roads and working around all the construction sites. Building world-class facilities on a hillside like this is not an easy thing to do. That we’re able to do this while we’re being very productive in research is really a testament to the excellence of this Laboratory. I’m certain that this decade of modernization will leave the Laboratory in an even better position to lead the world in science and technology well into the future, equipped with better infrastructure than we’ve seen in a generation.

German: We’ve seen enormous changes in the way the Lab operates over the last few years, starting at the beginning of the pandemic. What are your thoughts on how we’re doing in managing all this change? How have you seen the Lab’s culture change, and what aspects of this change would you like to keep or do away with?

Witherell: I would like to think that we’re still developing the culture of stewardship of the Laboratory that we’ve been talking about the last few years and taking care of the things we need to sustain to be sure this remains a great Laboratory, that is, taking care of our people, research, and resources. As part of that, we started to lay the foundation a few years ago with establishing an IDEA [inclusion, diversity, equity, and accountability] Office that reports to me. Over time, these principles, I think, have become embedded in our institutional practices and in how we think about who we are as an organization. Our IDEA principles and Stewardship values have served us very well as we came into the pandemic. I don’t know how we would have done over the last three years if we had not already had those conversations across the Laboratory. 

Now, as we come out of the pandemic, the Lab’s culture of welcoming and belonging is playing a significant role in our ability to recruit and retain the people we need to remain a great lab, and they’re also guiding us as we learn to manage ourselves in this new flexible work environment. I think we all have firsthand experience with how complicated it is to maintain the cohesion and collaboration that is required to do our work when people are not in the same work spaces, and our principles and values provide a foundation for our relationships and interactions.

I want to be clear that we still have a long way to go, as I think society does, in terms of creating a welcoming and equitable environment. But we’ve made a good start, and I would like to think that these things that have changed are going to become part of the permanent culture of the Laboratory.

In a related development, another essential change has been to raise the bar in communicating effectively, both in establishing better two-way communication inside the Laboratory, as well as communicating well with key stakeholders outside the Lab, and the strength in strategic communications that we’ve built up over the last few years has been critical to this. 

Finally, I think our Lab grades show that people have embraced the idea that we need to be the best among the best in everything we do, in research and in operations and in building new facilities, and that we can do all these well at the same time. That is a part of our culture that we want to keep. 

German: What do you expect to be the greatest challenges for the Lab in the coming years? 

Witherell: Well, I always start with thinking of all of the large and challenging projects we have committed to completing, where we have been entrusted to bring these projects home safely, as we did for NERSC and ESnet. Other big ones now underway include the ALS-U and BioEPIC, but also the cosmology project CMB-S4. Building a big telescope array on Antarctica and Chile is really an exciting but challenging project. And, of course, building a new cafeteria and meeting facility.

Those are all important projects, but also very difficult ones. Our record of doing these on time and budget has been exemplary, but it’s taken enormous effort, and we need to keep doing that, and we need to do it in a period when supply chain problems and difficulties recruiting people can bring extra challenges. When I talk to our project managers and project directors, that’s what’s most on their minds right now.

Another challenge, of course, and I’ve been doing jobs like this for about 20 years, is the federal budget cycle. To be honest, I’ve seen more down cycles than up cycles, and we’ve actually been pretty lucky here at the Lab the last several years. But we have to be very agile at adapting to whatever the funding the environment happens to be. What does that mean? Well, although we have been growing the budget over recent years, mostly, when you factor in how much we’re investing in new projects, on balance we haven’t really been increasing our staff size significantly. This is good because it means we are positioned pretty well to be agile and respond to whatever a changing federal budget scenario throws at us. We don’t know what will happen next, but we always need to be ready for changes. 

German: You’ve mentioned recruiting a few times. Has the Lab experienced recruiting and retention challenges like other employers in the U.S.?

Witherell: In every meeting I have with division directors and ALDs, one of the first topics I bring up is how are the world’s difficulties in recruitment or retention affecting your division right now? What I hear is that they see people moving around more, and that is a challenge, and there are isolated recruiting challenges in certain fields that affect the Lab. But mostly it’s going reasonably well. I know we’ve seen more challenging recruiting and retention across the whole research enterprise of the United States than I’ve seen in my career, and we may experience more challenges in the future. 

So what can we do about that? We have to make this the place that everybody wants to come and be a part of. Some of that is through improving compensation and benefits. But we also have to create an environment where everybody knows they are valued and respected. And modernizing facilities is critical, because if you want to have the best people, they want to come where they have state-of-the-art facilities in which to do their research. So taking care of our people and our facilities is also making sure we can attract and keep the best people. It’s all connected, and it’s all important.

German: What are some things you’re looking forward to in the new year?

Witherell: I have to start with that I’m looking forward to COVID not being as big a problem as it has been for the last three years. I know we’re not out of it yet. But it is beginning to be more manageable, and, believe me, I’m looking forward to not thinking about it as much as I have been.

Then seeing more people back at the Laboratory, and as I walk around now, having people to talk to is great, and I think we are starting to be able to have big group meetings here, and that’s very important to the way we do our science. I think that will be a big transformation. 

When I am in big group meetings, I do a little exercise. I ask people how many have joined the Lab since March 2020, when the pandemic came to California. Typically 30% raise their hands, and everyone is surprised at how many of our people have recently joined the Lab. And I find that people are delighted to be able to talk in person to people they have been working with on Zoom, in some cases for years. It’s important to many people to be back actually interacting with other people in person. That’s really the best part of what I think we’ll be doing, for the next six months or so, anyway.

German: You announced to the Lab in September that you were beginning radiotherapy to treat your recently discovered prostate cancer. How are you feeling? Any learnings from the experience?

Witherell: Well, first of all, I got my last treatment in December and I feel great. I was able to work at the Lab every day during my treatments and generally felt good. When I walk around this spectacular site every day and I run into people, people have been really good about expressing their concern and best wishes. It’s really encouraging to have that kind of support. I want everybody to understand that I really do appreciate that.

But I feel great. Three days after I finished my radiation therapy I flew to Washington for those meetings we talked about. Everything looks good right now, and we had something extra to celebrate in our home on New Year’s Day this year, to have the sense that we’re past that.

German: Anything else you’d like to say?

Witherell: Just that it’s a great privilege and joy to lead this Laboratory, where so many dedicated, talented people do work that has an impact on science and on society. I couldn’t be luckier in that regard, and I can’t imagine anything else I would want to do.

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