Dr. Thom MasonAs ORNL prepares to host a regional NEF dialogue April 18, Director Dr. Thom Mason talks about the 3C’s and engineering’s future.


What’s it like to be part of ORNL?

All of us at ORNL are motivated by the opportunity to translate our science and engineering research into innovations that impact energy, global security and, ultimately, America’s long-term economic prospects. For me, the broad span of our research, from the very fundamental all the way to the point of application, is exciting and the ways in which we can connect together diverse elements of our expertise to do something impactful is unique.

What about challenges with the “3C’s” of engineering: capacity, capability and competitiveness?

We compete for talent globally. Because of the investments the Department of Energy has made in our specialized facilities, our supercomputers and neutron sources for example, we offer tools that are hard to find anywhere else and that certainly helps us recruit and retain the very best. However, as a nation we struggle to find talented individuals and it is difficult to keep pace with the mission needs. We are fortunate to be able to attract staff from around the world, but that is in part necessitated by the fact we don’t cultivate enough homegrown talent within the U.S. In many cases the draw “back home” for scientists and engineers from abroad is getting stronger as economies grow globally and look to the American model of innovation to develop further.

How has ORNL contributed to making America a better engineering nation?

We like to think we push the envelope of the possible with our one-of-a-kind facilities, things like the Spallation Neutron Source, ITER, the Leadership Computing Facility, the National Transportation Research Center, etc. We have ramped up our efforts in graduate education, working with universities to bring more graduate students into the lab for thesis research. We host interns and co-op students at the undergraduate level and, recently, we have been excited to work with high school students through the FIRST program.

What engineering disciplines do you see being in demand in the near future?

We draw on the full spectrum of engineering talent. Cyber security is a growing issue as is the future of high performance computing, so all aspects of computing and software engineering are in demand. Through a combination of new technology and the demographics of the existing engineering workforce, nuclear engineering and other engineering disciplines applied to nuclear are areas where there will likely be lots of opportunity as well.

How can engineers strengthen national security and future prosperity?

I would have to say by coming to work at one of the National Laboratories!