Source: Science | Adrian Cho | March 13, 2015

The Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) lead laboratory for chemistry, environmental science, and data analytics is getting a new leader. On 1 April, Steven Ashby, a computational mathematician, will become director of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) in Richland, Washington, one of 10 national laboratories supported by DOE’s $5.1 billion Office of Science, the lab announced Wednesday. Ashby, 55, has served as PNNL’s deputy director for science and technology since 2008 and will succeed Michael Kluse, who is retiring.

“He’s a great choice,” says Mark Peters, a geochemist and associate lab director for energy and global security at the Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont, Illinois, who from 2010 to 2013 served with Ashby on the National Laboratory Chief Research Officers Council, which Ashby now chairs. “When it comes to thinking about what the system can do to support science and national security, he’s one of the people [DOE leaders] call,” Peters says.

PNNL is the second largest of the Office of Science labs and one of the most diverse. It has a staff of 4283 and a $1 billion annual budget and excels in research areas such as climate change, advance electrical grids, nuclear nonproliferation technologies, and environmental remediation, Ashby says. In spite of that diversity, PNNL has a unified mission, he says. “Simply put, our mission is to understand, predict, and control complex adaptive systems,” he says, be it climate, the energy grid, or the national security system. Given the broad range of work at the lab, that more conceptual approach “makes sense,” Peters says.

PNNL also has a relatively wide portfolio of funding sources. Last year, more than a quarter of its budget came from the nonproliferation programs within DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which is responsible for the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Only a sixth came from DOE’s Office of Science. Unlike many other Office of Science labs, PNNL does not have a large particle accelerator–based user facility such as an x-ray source or a neutron source. PNNL’s single largest user facility is the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory, which has an annual budget of about $40 million.

Ashby is open and approachable, says Robert Falgout, a computational mathematician at NNSA’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, where Ashby worked for 20 years before coming to PNNL. Ashby led the effort to establish the lab’s Center for Applied Scientific Computing in 1996, Falgout recalls. “People feel comfortable around him even though he’s the boss,” says Falgout, who considers Ashby a friend. “He works with people. He doesn’t say, ‘Just do it. This is how it’s going to be.’ “