Congratulations to our R&D 100 winners and finalists! I am thrilled that we are getting external recognition of the great work that we do every day, and despite challenging circumstances.
And congratulations to Jennifer Doudna, a faculty scientist at the Lab, who is co-winner of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry!
Jennifer’s Nobel prize, our seven R&D 100 Award winning projects, and our successful bid for the Quantum Systems Accelerator, bring to my mind the value of the Laboratory Directed Research and Development (LDRD) program. Jennifer’s early work on CRISPR RNA strands and the Cas1 protein was funded by an LDRD award in 2008. Many of our R&D 100 Award winners and our quantum computing initiatives got their start as LDRD-funded projects. Kristin Persson’s Materials Project, featured below, is another example of how LDRD can take a great idea and build it into a powerhouse offering at the Lab.
Indeed, for the resources that are available to the program, the LDRD program has had an outsized impact. Because we can control the funds internally, we have the flexibility to use it as investment or seed funding for projects that are creative and exciting and potentially of strategic importance to the Lab within our mission from DOE.
We are continually looking for strategic opportunities to strengthen the Lab’s role and capabilities. In the last Research News, I talked about our COVID-19 and SARS-CoV-2 strategic planning initiative. We are also looking for opportunities to leverage our work across the Lab related to national security, and to that end have re-organized so that the Lab’s Office of National and Homeland Security reports to the Lab Directorate.
With so much going on, I feel bullish on our future and on our community’s ability to lead cutting edge science that matters. I hope you are well and that your work continues to be satisfying, and that you and your loved ones stay healthy and safe.
Deputy Laboratory Director for Research
Chief Research Officer
How the LDRD Turned an Idea into a Success: Kristin Persson’s Story
In the fall of 2010, Kristin Persson had been at the Lab for two years. Hired to do lithium-ion battery modelling, she had her eye on a project to conduct data-driven research and design across chemistries to facilitate materials learning across systems. She decided to apply for an LDRD award (her second application, the first having been unsuccessful). She proposed creating a public database of computed properties of materials and making the database freely available, in the hopes of advancing materials design and democratizing materials data.
And she got the award.
According to Horst Simon, who had then just been appointed Deputy Laboratory Director for Research and Chief Research Officer and who led the LDRD selection process, the proposal presented an out-of-the-box idea. The idea wasn’t without risk, and indeed one judge was unsure about the modelling techniques, but it was worthy of further exploration.
“It wasn’t a huge amount of money, but it made all the difference,” said Kristin. “And Berkeley Lab was the right place for it, because it required interdisciplinary skills, from materials science to high performance computing to database expertise. Doing this work at a national lab made sense, because it’s the kind of work that, if successful, would require broader interdisciplinary expertise, and staff support that a university would find challenging to provide.”
“The LDRD helped me to try something that was creative, a bit risky, but exciting,” said Kristin.
The “skunkworks team,” as Kristin calls it, consisted of herself, a postdoc (Michael Kocher), and a gang of volunteer lab scientists as well as collaborators from MIT who were interested and enthusiastic to help out with the project on their own time. They built out the first platform, which was launched online in October 2011.
The rest is, as they say, history. Following the initial LDRD project, Kristin applied for funding from the DOE, and was granted $11 million over five years to create the Materials Project Center for Functional Electronic Materials Design and to scale up the project. Kristin ran the Center for five years, during this time establishing Berkeley Lab as the leading materials data provider in the world.
Today the Materials Project has 140,000 registered users worldwide, and is eclipsing the Alexa ranking (i.e., the data usage) of other large experimental databases, for example, the Inorganic Crystal Structure Database (ICSD). Three to five thousand users log on every day, and the platform delivers, on average, two million data points daily. The initiative has accelerated the discovery of new battery materials, transparent conducting oxides, and thermoelectric materials, among many others. The Materials Project is now a core program in the Lab’s Materials Science Division. And Kristin herself has continued to be instrumental with the Project and beyond; she was recently named director of the Molecular Foundry.
By all measures, the small “skunkworks” project funded by the LDRD award back in 2011 has grown into a huge success. “If it weren’t for that initial funding from the LDRD Award, we wouldn’t be here today,” said Kristin.
Kristin’s tips for other researchers who are considering applying for the LDRD? “I encourage researchers to be fearless when applying for LDRD funding. Unlike most government funding that favor projects that have already had some early results or success, LDRD funding allows you to explore out-there ideas,” said Kristin. “Don’t waste this kind of opportunity on funding that you could get elsewhere.”
The LDRD, which has seeded many wonderful projects at Berkeley Lab, will issue the next call for proposals by the end of December; proposals will be due in March, 2021.
For more information about the LDRD, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Office of National and Homeland Security Moves to Directorate to Better Support Opportunities across the Lab
The Lab’s Office of National and Homeland Security (ONHS) has transitioned from the Physical Sciences Area to the Lab Directorate, reporting to the Deputy Lab Director for Research.
Originally created in the 1990s as a mandated point of contact for communication with the DOE National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA)’s Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation Research & Development Office, the ONHS expanded in the following decade to include radiation detection applications in the Physical Sciences Area. As divisions in other Areas, such as the Materials Science Division, the former Life Sciences Division, and the Laser Technologies Group in the Energy Technologies Area began to contribute research relevant to national security, the Lab decided to formally recognize the Office’s value as the interface between the Lab and the nation’s security agencies, which include the Department of Defense (DoD), Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the DOE’s NNSA, and the intelligence community. Today, 19 out of the Lab’s 21 divisions conduct research within this ONHS sponsor set.
The ONHS’s program manager, John Valentine, and deputy program manager, Millie Firestone, are working to build the Lab’s national security research vision and strategy as well as portfolio. John’s subset of projects focuses on radiological and nuclear security and Millie’s is focused on chemical and biological technologies for defense, opportunities tightly linked with the Biosciences and Energy Sciences Areas. Millie splits her time between ONHS and the Biosciences Area, where she is focusing on developing an inclusive strategy to align biodefense and biosecurity research. For the technologies and capabilities outside these two subsets, John and Millie share responsibilities.
“There are many opportunities to leverage our current capabilities and research,” said John, a nuclear engineer by training who previously worked at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and SAIC, a defense contractor. “The Quantum Systems Accelerator is just one example of the kind of research initiative in which the federal government is investing heavily.” In particular, John and Millie believe there are numerous opportunities to complement the Lab’s current DOE-focused portfolio with DoD projects.
Both John and Millie keep a close eye on the security agencies and work to build relationships with key stakeholders. They will support the Lab’s Areas, Divisions, and researchers in different ways, including:
- Developing the Lab’s overall strategy for security-related research to complement its core DOE mission
- Coordinating the Lab’s response to opportunities with particular strategic sponsors
- Ensuring proposals are relevant to sponsor needs by providing input on mission gaps that proposals should address
- Educating the Lab research community about sponsors’ missions, priorities, and opportunities.
The ONHS creates a competitive advantage for Berkeley Lab, allowing it to remain unclassified while still focused on addressing sponsors’ needs. Additional articles will follow to provide more detail about ONHS and how Lab scientists can engage with the office. For any questions about national security-related research, opportunities, and sponsors, contact John at email@example.com or Millie at firstname.lastname@example.org.
LBNL Shared Cost for Research Projects
Some funding opportunities require research teams to find additional funding sources to share in the cost of supporting the research. For example, cost sharing is essential for many DOE opportunities sponsored by ARPA-E or EERE. Research Divisions and many Principal Investigators at LBNL know about the Lab’s cost-share request process. But what proposed projects are eligible for cost-share from the Lab? And how do PIs go about seeking support through this program?
The first thing to know is that the Lab’s cost-sharing capability is limited and is reserved for projects that have demonstrable strategic impact on LBNL mission, capacity, and capabilities. For example, consider whether your project is likely to bring in significant funding ($1 million or more) to the Lab, or if it aligns with one of the Lab’s competitive advantages. Perhaps your project will help create a sustainable program that will develop the Lab’s core capabilities and expertise, or build its research infrastructure.
Because the projects that will be considered for funding are those that are strategically important to the Lab, Areas and Divisions are expected to contribute royalty or gift funds to offset the total request, that is, your Area or Division should have some “skin in the game”. You should also know that the Lab’s cost-share contribution is capped at five percent of the annual LBNL budget for your project (not 5% of the total project budget, but of the portion for LBNL).
There are also other eligibility criteria for this program, namely, that:
- The work is performed by full-time LBNL staff
- The work is performed at LBNL (e.g., Hill site, JBEI)
- The work is performed with LBNL equipment used at an LBNL site.
Here’s how to go about submitting a request for funding through the Lab’s cost-sharing program:
- Fill out the form called “Request for Shared Cost Support” which can be found on the OCFO eSRA website and include any necessary attachments (including a project description, budget, and the Strategic Impact Statement).
- Make sure your Associate Lab Director, Division Director, and Business/Financial Manager approve the request and sign the form.
- To obtain the final required approval from the Deputy Laboratory Director for Research, submit the request form with all these signatures and relevant attachments five days before you need a response, to Darren Ho, (email@example.com). You may be asked further questions before receiving this final approval, so it’s important to submit your form early.
- To ensure your proposal will be considered for cost share, the completed request form with all approvals must be obtained BEFORE submitting your proposal to the Reimbursement Group (RG), Strategic Partnerships Office (SPO) and/or the DOE Direct Budget Office.
If you have any questions about the Lab’s cost-share program, contact Darren Ho, firstname.lastname@example.org.