Meet Paul K. Kearns, director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory. In his role, he manages the research and operations of the Laboratory and its 3,300 employees, 8,000 facility users, and 800 visiting researchers. As an effective and respected leader, Paul encourages staff to achieve higher goals and objectives. His insights enhance Lab operations. His agile and bold thinking enables the Lab to embrace uncertain times as times of opportunity. His understanding of the importance of an inclusive and supportive Lab culture create an environment where scientific discoveries and breakthrough technologies are generated.
Congratulations on reaching the milestone of 10 years of service at Argonne. How were you first introduced to Argonne? Share with us a bit about your career path, from a student scientist to Laboratory Director.
I was first introduced to Argonne while I was a graduate student and attended a field trip to learn about the Lab’s capabilities. After earning my bachelor’s in natural resources and environmental sciences and master’s and doctorate degrees in bionucleonics, all from Purdue University, I started my career as a DOE health protection specialist at Argonne. I was drawn to stewardship of scientific resources.
I also served the DOE at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, and Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory, which is now Idaho National Laboratory. I oversaw technical and contracting strategies and many different science programs. I then became an executive for Battelle Global Laboratory Operations, where I helped establish programs to deploy micro-grids and support cyber security technologies for the U.S. military. I also held positions overseas in the United Kingdom and Italy.
In 2010, I jumped at the opportunity to serve as Argonne’s Chief Operations Officer because I knew of the Lab’s outstanding reputation from my graduate school days. I served in that role for seven years before being named Laboratory Director in 2017.
While serving as Laboratory Director, you developed Argonne’s impact strategy focused on science and technology leadership, operational excellence, and its world-class community of talent. With the Lab’s many moving parts, why have you identified these areas of focus?
These three pillars are critical to fulfilling our scientific mission, which is to accelerate the science and technology that drive U.S. prosperity and security. Our world-class community of talent and operational excellence empower Argonne’s science and technology leadership for the nation. Without our people and organization, we would not be able to provide the leadership that unlocks new frontiers for America’s energy future and economic growth.
During your tenure, you created a new directorate — Science & Technology Partnerships and Outreach (S&TPO) — with the goal of maximizing outcomes of existing industry collaborations and partnerships and supporting new collaborations and partnerships. Why did you think standing up a new directorate with this focus was necessary?
The U.S. Department of Energy has as a mission for the national lab complex to deploy discoveries, thereby expanding the industrial impact of DOE’s research and development for U.S. economic, energy, and national security interests. For decades, Argonne has collaborated with industry and invented technologies that have been commercialized.
We created the S&TPO directorate to further this mission by actively seeking opportunities to collaborate with commercial partners and accelerating the adoption of new technologies by industries. S&TPO oversees tech transfers and manages industry relationships which enables Argonne’s four science-based directorates to maintain their focus on research and achieve an even greater impact for our country.
In February 2020, the Lab extended the reach of its campus by opening a site in Chicago. What is the goal of this initiative and what kind of research and activities will take place in this new space?
With our new presence in Hyde Park, we will better connect with the people and businesses of Chicago and contribute to the strengths of the city’s world-class research and technology innovation network.
By way of engagement and partnership, we want to raise awareness about our Lab’s capabilities, advance science and technology through expanded collaborations, accelerate commercialization of Argonne-developed technologies, and reach into new communities to help build the STEM workforce of the future. Our scientific focus at the Chicago site will include polymer design and innovation and a focus on research of importance in the Great Lakes region — climate, food/water/energy nexus, and more prosperous, sustainable, and resilient South Side Chicago communities.
Our new city location will enable us to be significant contributors to Chicago’s science and engineering ecosystem and will help us further promote an innovation climate in the city, region, and nation.
Argonne is included in Forbes list of America’s Best Employers in 2020, a list of organizations liked best by employees. In no small part, your intentionality around fostering a welcoming and inclusive culture that values diversity, innovation, and collaboration played a role in Argonne receiving this designation. What steps have you taken to enhance the environment for Lab employees?
Our people are everything. We are fortunate that our mission attracts the most ambitious, curious minds — people who are motivated by the impact their work can have on the world. It’s our job, then, to support and retain them.
Since I’ve had the privilege of serving as director, I’ve focused on improving Argonne’s culture because how we work together is intricately woven into what we can achieve. Early on, we established a set of core values (safety, respect, integrity, teamwork, and impact) that are integral to every aspect of our laboratory.
We invest a great amount time in listening to our employees. We use a range of forums to keep the lines of communication open between Lab management and staff — from focus groups to biweekly meetings with me to Lab-wide employee town halls. Many of the actions we have implemented have been in response to what we have learned at these important forums.
To continue to advance, we also depend on our ability to recruit and retain a diverse workforce. Bringing together people whose cultural and intellectual backgrounds equip them to look at a problem from different viewpoints is fundamental to collaboration and innovation.
Over the next decade, what do think will be Argonne’s greatest challenge and greatest opportunity for global impact?
This year highlighted the importance of the national lab complex for the United States and the world. At Argonne, we demonstrated how we tackle some of the most immediate and complex challenges facing society. Our analysis and discoveries significantly contribute to the global fight against COVID-19 and further expand the boundaries of many other fields of science.
I view securing consistent science research funding as both our greatest challenge and greatest opportunity. With prolonged and strong support, Argonne can help solve complex global problems, such as adapting to climate change, improving energy-water systems, and confronting future pandemics.
What do you hope your leadership at Argonne will mean for the laboratory in the long term?
I hope to accomplish what my talented and dedicated predecessors have accomplished: To leave the Lab well-poised for the future. Like any other institution devoted to curiosity and entrepreneurial thinking, we are building our capacity to be flexible and fast to meet our science goals. Key to this is attracting the best and the brightest. That’s why we are enacting policies that make our workplace even more safe and inclusive with a healthy life-work balance that all employees are looking for.
The most talented are drawn to the most challenging problems of our time, and that’s exactly what we focus on at Argonne. Our scientists and engineers confront multifaceted issues to achieve clean energy solutions, healthy outcomes, and numerous other advancements. They innovate new, exciting technologies in quantum information science, high-performance computing, artificial intelligence, and many other areas. And our capabilities will soon be even more powerful when we complete the Advanced Photon Source Upgrade and the Aurora exascale supercomputer in the next couple of years.
Argonne is currently experiencing an exciting, transformational period. In the next two to four years, the laboratory will become a new place in terms of our research capabilities and our ability to make exciting new discoveries and deliver advanced technologies – beyond those we can imagine today. This will have a huge impact on the nation and enable us to provide greater leadership to the science community. Argonne has changed the world with science for nearly 75 years, and I’m confident we will continue advancing science and technology in the years to come.