Jun 5, 2008

ORNL pulls contract of top scientist, outspoken critic

By Frank Munger, KnoxNews.com

Ward Plummer, a distinguished scientist with joint appointments at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the University of Tennessee, said today that ORNL had eliminated his lab position — effective June 30.

“ORNL terminated me,” Plummer said. “I got terminated without a review.”

The experimental physicist said he was informed of the situation by Jim Roberto, ORNL’s deputy lab director for science and technology, but was not given a specific reason. Plummer said he’s convinced that the action was taken because of his outspoken criticism of the lab’s leadership — or, as he stated, “the lack of it.”

Michelle Buchanan, the associate lab director for physical sciences, confirmed that ORNL had decided not to renew the scientist’s contract, but she said the decision was not driven by Plummer’s criticism of lab management.

“I think it was just primarily because his interest in the science was going in a different direction than ours and our sponsor,” Buchanan said. She said the Department of Energy’s Office of Basic Energy Sciences is increasingly interested in “use-inspired” research that supports energy missions, whereas Plummer wanted to do “discovery-based” research with broader potential.

Plummer will become a full-time faculty member in UT’s Physics Department, where he holds tenure as a professor. UT and ORNL previously shared the costs of the Plummer’s salary — listed at $289,090 — and a discretionary fund roughly equal to that amount. He split time between the institutions.

Tom Milligan, UT’s vice chancellor for communications, confirmed that the university would pick up the full costs for Plummer.

“He is a leading scientist, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, and we are going to continue to support him,” Milligan said. “We’re proud to have him on our faculty.”

Roberto initially declined comment, but later said, “I think this is the right evolution ... I actually think this is a good outcome for him.”

The Distinguished Scientists Program was started in 1984 as a way to recruit top-level scientists to East Tennessee, and it’s considered the anchor program of the UT-ORNL Science Alliance. There currently are 11 people in the program, although not all of them have dual appointments.

Plummer, 67, is a star researcher in surface physics, using advanced microscopes and other techniques to study the chemical and physical characteristics of materials at the atomic scale. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2006, a strong validation of his career achievements.

The physicist accepted the joint position at UT-ORNL in 1993 after spending 20 years at the University of Pennsylvania, where he was a physics professor and director of the Materials Research Laboratory.

Plummer said the Distinguished Scientists are supposed to come up for review every five years, and his review came due last fall. However, he said ORNL managers did not submit their part. He said he believes lab managers did want not to spell out reasons for his termination in writing because they couldn’t defend it.

“I’ve been openly critical of the leadership out there, and you can’t write that down (in a review),” he said.

Plummer said he was particularly critical of Buchanan and the decision to dissolve ORNL’s Solid State Division.

“I view what they have done and what (UT President John) Petersen has done as sort of a reign of intimidation,” he said. Plummer said the message is clear: “If you disagree, you’re gone.”

Buchanan praised Plummer as an “incredible scientist,” but she said there were clear differences on future research paths. “He would really like to do things where he breaks the cutting edge of general scientific knowledge ... Sometimes your science just takes you in a different direction.”

Asked about Plummer’s criticism of her leadership, Buchanan said, “Who isn’t criticized as a manager? He’s a great scientist, and I’ve always enjoyed talking to him about science. He doesn’t always agree with anything. That’s his prerogative. There’s absolutely no animosity as far as I’m concerned.”

Much of his Oak Ridge research was done at Center for Nanophase Materials Sciences, a new $65 million nanoscience facility. Linda Horton, the center’s director, said Plummer would continue to have an office there and be a welcome researcher and senior consultant.

“He’s obviously a very creative person and has great ideas,” Horton said.

Buchanan and Horton both said they didn’t think the decision would affect the UT-ORNL Science Alliance and the Distinguished Scientists Program.

“We are committed to supporting this relationship because it has really been a wonderful program,” Buchanan said.

More details as they develop online and in Friday’s News Sentinel.

26 comments:

Anonymous said...

ORNL really messed that one up!

Anonymous said...

Another example of why the NNSA-mandated management mafia shouldn't exist. The widespread failure of NNSA/DOE labs to maintain their excellence is a reason to dissolve both organizations. NNSA fails again and again and again.

Time for the firing squad.

Anonymous said...

I hope all of the people flocking to the ORNL utopia pay attention. Shit happens everywhere.

Anonymous said...

How about this big story over at the Air Force involving some major nuke screw-ups?

apnews.myway.com/
article/20080605/D91466O80.html

********************************
Gates ousts Air Force leaders in historic shake-up over nuke blunders - AP, Jun 5, 6:03 PM (ET)
********************************

WASHINGTON (AP) - Defense Secretary Robert Gates ousted the Air Force's top military and civilian leaders Thursday, holding them to account in a historic Pentagon shake-up after embarrassing nuclear mix-ups.

Gates announced at a news conference that he had accepted the resignations of Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Michael Moseley and Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne - a highly unusual double firing.

Gates said his decision was based mainly on the damning conclusions of an internal report on the mistaken shipment to Taiwan of four Air Force electrical fuses for ballistic missile warheads. And he linked the underlying causes of that slip-up to another startling incident: the flight last August of a B-52 bomber that was mistakenly armed with six nuclear-tipped cruise missiles.

The report drew the stunning conclusion that the Air Force's nuclear standards have been in a long decline, a "problem that has been identified but not effectively addressed for over a decade."

Gates said an internal investigation found a common theme in the B-52 and Taiwan incidents: "a decline in the Air Force's nuclear mission focus and performance" and a failure by Air Force leaders to respond effectively.

In a reflection of his concern about the state of nuclear security, Gates said he had asked a former defense secretary, James Schlesinger, to lead a task force that will recommend ways to ensure that the highest levels of accountability and control are maintained in Air Force handling of nuclear weapons.

Anonymous said...

"UT and ORNL previously shared the costs of the Plummer’s salary — listed at $289,090 — and a discretionary fund roughly equal to that amount."

Wow, does ORNL pay well. And LANS handed out 2% raises the last two years.

Anonymous said...

Well, Terry Wallace has made sure that the Lab Fellows are no longer a special class or distinction at the lab with his new compensation program. (And yes it was Terry who wanted this to happen because he is uncomfortable with people smarter than himself.) The only protected class are his friends in the Senior Lab Fellow category. If I were a Lab Fellow I would no be speaking up anymore against our superb Lab management at LANL.

Anonymous said...

Another example of why the NNSA-mandated management mafia shouldn't exist....
NSA fails again and again and again.
======================================

Oak Ridge is NOT an NNSA lab. ORNL
falls under DOE's Office of Science;
NOT NNSA.

Anonymous said...

He wasn't "fired" or his contract "terminated for cause." His contract simply wasn't renewed. No reason has to be given for non-renewal.

Anonymous said...

"NNSA fails again and again and again."

ORNL is NOT an NNSA lab, it's Office of Science.

Anonymous said...

A guy past retirement age, with that salary, plus the "discretionary" fund (whatever that is), whose ORNL bosses and sponsors claim, rightly or not, not to need all that much, seems like a perfect opportunity for some serious belt-tightening, without affecting full-time, mid-career people. I think it sounds like a solid, justifiable management decision. Since UT is picking him up full-time, they obviously aren't as picky about programatic direction, and he won't have to keep getting himself in trouble over that. I agree that it seems like a win-win.

Anonymous said...

"UT and ORNL previously shared the costs of the Plummer’s salary — listed at $289,090 — and a discretionary fund roughly equal to that amount."

I agree, that looks like a mighty nice salary for a guy who is not even in the ORNL management chain! Looks like ORNL pays their "best and brightest" research scientists very well, indeed!

As far as the story of this scientist's "layoff", he wasn't laid off. He was on contract to ORNL and they decided not to renew it. It's not a big story.

ORNL appears to be a better run National Lab than LANL under the current management of LANS and NNSA. LANL is in steep decline, while many of the DOE labs, like ORNL, appear to be flourishing.

ORNL is not perfect, but at least it is run by a non-profit entity, Battelle Institute, that is not destroying the place, while LANL currently suffers under a bunch of "for-profit" corporate types like Bechtel and BWXT. If NNSA wants to improve things at LANL, I suggest they cancel the LANS contract and allow LANL to be run by Battelle. Of course, that wouldn't fit well with NNSA new vision of LANL as a big production complex.

Anonymous said...

Some interesting comments, both pro and con, posted over at the article site at:

www.knoxnews.com/news/
2008/jun/06/
lab-contract-not-
renewed-ornl-denies-charge-outspo/

*****
Posted by scagnasty on June 6, 2008 at 9:01 a.m.

Both sides speak truth. Battelle has some terribly unprepared people in what Battelle requires staff to call, "Leadership". They do this so they can easily manipulate the R&D managers. It works for them and DOE to do this. Battelle does threaten the staff with "shooting swimmers" which means if you disagree with their decisions, you will be done away with! TRUE!

Ward saw Battelle populate management with many people who are not trained in their disciplines and more importantly, have no experiencce in working with high-end R&D.

But Ward is mostly out of control. He was safely stowed inside the fence at ORNL for years. He is now free to spread his knowledge to the general public.

Ward knows Battelle and DOE are dumbing the National Labs (with DOE permission and support)

*****
Posted by cwatson on June 6, 2008 at 9:08 a.m.

If he is as good as he says he is, he should have no problem finding work elsewhere. UT says they will keep him, at a cost of $600,000. If he isn't happy with that...well, he sounds like won't be happy anywhere. He is tenured and that makes some people beligerent. Too bad...it sounds like a waste of brain-power.

*****
Posted by scagnasty on June 6, 2008 at 9:16 a.m.

Excuse me, but I just had another thought to share. Battelle has let very good long-term honest hard-working people go for "breaking their rules". Unfortunately some of the most compelling stories do not make the press. Battelle is not consistent in punishment and use this inconsistency as a tool to strike fear in the staff.

Battelle has sold DOE on their ruls management system they call SBMS. DOE is ignorant enough to think it is a good system. It is not, it is not feasible for a human to work and follow their piles of rules. Proof of this is the recent rule-breaking by the Lab Directors Mason and Wadsworth. But they didn't fire or punish their Leaders!

I know of one really nice hard working environmental person that was fired this year for making one mistake...your article aught to be about that!

The only way Battelle has leaders is by requiring staff to call them leaders. People like Jeff Smith and company lead nothing. They are lousy managers.

Anonymous said...

I love this quote:
“He would really like to do things where he breaks the cutting edge of general scientific knowledge ... Sometimes your science just takes you in a different direction.”

So where is ORNL going? They DON'T want to do cutting edge? What are they there for then? What other direction is there for a real science lab?

DOE is really, really broken.

Anonymous said...

I worked for Battelle for a number of years and thought that they did okay. SBMS is a fairly good system (do you have a better one?) and Wadsworth has certainly been involved with high-end R&D.

In the type of contract in which Plummer was, is seems that you are essentially an "at-will" employee. In that situation it's not always best to rock the boat.

Anonymous said...

7:34 pm: "So where is ORNL going? They DON'T want to do cutting edge? What are they there for then? What other direction is there for a real science lab?"

Uh, maybe where their sponsor wants the research to go? Duh.

Anonymous said...

"7:34 pm: "So where is ORNL going? They DON'T want to do cutting edge? What are they there for then? What other direction is there for a real science lab?"

Uh, maybe where their sponsor wants the research to go? Duh.

6/6/08 8:24 PM"

Does ORNL do anything that cannot be done better and cheaper elsewhere? Why do we need ORNL?

Anonymous said...

"Does ORNL do anything that cannot be done better and cheaper elsewhere? Why do we need ORNL?"

Interesting question. Frank Munger's blog page says that one recent study placed ORNL's costs of doing business *higher* than LANL's.

Anonymous said...

He is tenured and that makes some people beligerent. Too bad...it sounds like a waste of brain-power.

Not every anti-authoritarian is misdirected.

Jesus
Elijah
Luther
Ghandi
Confucious
Joan of Arc
Martin Luther King
Oppy
RFK
John Wilkes Booth (oops! wrong list)

Anonymous said...

Jesus, etc. ...all of these folks would have been chastised and. banished from LANL for. being so-called non team players or worst yet, whistleblowers. And you all would have cheered on. So stop pretending otherwise.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, but I don't think Jesus would ever have worked at a nuclear weapons lab.

Anonymous said...

"Sorry, but I don't think Jesus would ever have worked at a nuclear weapons lab." - 6/8/08 8:34 AM

You obviously haven't witnessed the Messiah Complex of some of LANL's top weapons designers!

Frank Young said...

From Frank Munger's Atomic City Underground:

Folo on Plummer and Distinguished Scientists
Last week's report about the ORNL decision not to renew Ward Plummer's contract drew a bunch of attention in research and academic circles.

Interestingly, it also attracted comment at LANL: The Rest of the Story, a blog for the Los Alamos crowd, where the story was posted. Some folks noted (with envy) the high salary and perks of the Distinguished Scientist appointment.

On the Oak Ridge front, I asked Tom Wilbanks, the chairman of the Corporate Fellows Council, for his take, and he said he wasn't closely familar with the Plummer situation.

But he did offer a comment on the Distinguished Scientists Program, a joint UT-ORNL deal that was started in 1984 as a way to enhance recruiting of National Academy-type researchers to the area.

"Many of ORNL staff think the Distinguished Scientist Program is an idea that should be revisited, and when that happens there may be some reason to think about some transition to the Governor's Chairs that would mean some change," Wilbanks said. "It's been in place a good while, and it's healthy to evaluate any program that's been in place that long to see how the benefits are shared beteween ORNL and UT."

He said many ORNL staffers have the impression that the Distinguished Scientists Program is more beneficial to UT than it is to ORNL.

Plummer, meanwhile, was clearly unhappy with the explanation of the decision by ORNL officials, especially the notion that he was unwilling to do "use-inspired" research. That's simply not true, he said.

Anonymous said...

Who wants to do "use-inspired" research?

I prefer doing "useless" research. It makes for much easier peer review.

Anonymous said...

"Sorry, but I don't think Jesus would ever have worked at a nuclear weapons lab."

Yes, and look how his career turned out.

Anonymous said...

"Yes, and look how his career turned out." (7:02 AM)

Yeah, eternal life in Heaven as the right-hand man of God. Not too shabby.

Anonymous said...

I prefer doing useless research. It makes for much easier peer review. - 6/10/08 8:34 AM

FTFY by removing the quote marks.