Jun 5, 2008
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.