A Director’s Profile: Walter Massey

By Justin H.S. BreauxFebruary 27, 2014

In early March of 1979, the University of Chicago announced that Walter Eugene Massey would be Argonne National Laboratory's sixth director. He was the first African-American to hold this post.

It was a prime position, but Massey's decision to accept it was not taken lightly considering a recent energy crisis and a growing scientific enterprise hinting at a 21st century free of fossil fuel dependence.

But in the minds of the public, nuclear research was still conducted in Manhattan Project-like “shadows,” consuming greater amounts of taxpayer dollars. Moreover, the scientific community was anxious from an environment of political indecision.

Jimmy Carter's election as President saw the creation of the Department of Energy. But the president had his reservations about the role of nuclear energy, Argonne's main frontier, in the 21st century. Specifically, he had concerns about a breeder reactor program and its possible role in nuclear weapons proliferation. In addition, Congress complained that the DOE failed to define “the roles of its multi-program labs in non-nuclear energy research,” as research priorities were established during the budgeting process.

This was not an ideal political environment for a new national laboratory director, but Massey believed science education was the key to alleviating Congressional and public distrust, and that Argonne was the platform to lead that charge.

“I was really interested in supporting and enhancing the science education division,” says Massey. However, his dreams of focusing on science education were to be deferred.

On March 28 of that year, a partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island power plant threw the nation into a cascade of doubt about the safety of nuclear energy. The incident renewed the nuclear energy debate.

“The work at Argonne was significantly clouded by Three-Mile Island," says Massey. “So my first two years were intensely involved in the politics of nuclear energy and whether or not it would be supported."

Massey expressed concern about America’s energy future during a White House meeting with Carter. “I believe our energy policies will require a strong research and development base in nuclear fission,” Massey recalls telling the president.

Massey’s toughest job then became polishing Argonne’s image with DOE while simultaneously laying to rest old myths about the lab management. He employed several tactics, all designed to “sell” Argonne as a first-class lab and a regional resource to stem the tide of budget cuts. These tactics included reorganizing the lab's nuclear program, bringing the Intense Pulsed Neutron Source online, and increasing education and outreach efforts.

But as this plan was beginning to take shape, Ronald Reagan came into office and “immediately started de-funding most of our alternative energy programs,” said Massey. “(W)e had to lay off almost 800 people.”

The Intense Pulsed Neutron Source was to be a crown jewel in Argonne research. It would bring funding, users and prestige. By the time Massey became director, budget cuts threatened its closure before it even went online.

Massey again began working with DOE and Congress to rescue the research facility.

After a few rounds of successful talks, an earlier report slating the Intense Pulsed Neutron Source for an early demise was overturned and the facility could continue operation.

On a broader pitch, Massey sided with the government, restating their charge that governments need to conduct basic and applied research for national defense. But with this, he also made it clear that national labs should assume this responsibility for research on large energy systems and that government labs should engage in research and development of long-range, high-risk energy systems that were too complex or too expensive to be run by a single university or industry.

His outreach continued. He was chosen as Chair of Mayor Jane Byrne’s task force on high technology development; he launched a six-week summer course to encourage minority high-school students to study math, science and engineering; and he coordinated $2.5 million in contracts with minority-owned businesses for which he earned DOE’s Minority Business Award.

With the laboratory on sound footing following DOE’s conclusions that Argonne's institutional plan was one of the best among the multi-program laboratories, Massey became Vice President for Research of the University of Chicago and for the Argonne National Laboratory, a position that gave responsibility for Argonne as well as for research policies at the University.

As Massey looks to Argonne’s past, he smiles as he opines about the lab’s present.  

“The lab is in good shape and a lot of people put a lot of work to make sure of that,” he says. “Though Argonne has changed tremendously, we’re still a broad-based energy research lab with a spectrum of activities from engineering to fundamental science with world-class scientists and engineers.”

Argonne National Laboratory seeks solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology. The nation's first national laboratory, Argonne conducts leading-edge basic and applied scientific research in virtually every scientific discipline. Argonne researchers work closely with researchers from hundreds of companies, universities, and federal, state and municipal agencies to help them solve their specific problems, advance America's scientific leadership and prepare the nation for a better future. With employees from more than 60 nations, Argonne is managed by UChicago Argonne, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science.

DOE’s Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit science.energy.gov.