How long will Thom Mason stay at ORNL?

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Thom Mason, who turned 50 last year, has been director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory since 2007, and his star continues to rise.

The Oak Ridge lab has grown in size and stature under his leadership, and his advice is coveted in high levels of government and by scientific institutions around the globe.

Before becoming ORNL director, Mason drew acclaim for his work in birthing the Spallation Neutron Source — a $1.4 billion science project that was completed on schedule and under budget. It was that role, in part, that led the National Nuclear Security Administration to ask Mason to head a “Red Team” that last year evaluated operations at the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant and came up with a more-affordable alternative to the Uranium Processing Facility. Earlier this week, the Department of Energy released a report that proposed reforms for the agency’s often-criticized project management, and the report used the Spallation Neutron Source as a “case study” for how to carry out big projects.

All of which is to say that Mason is a hot commodity, and that brings up the inevitable questions: How long will be stay at ORNL? What’s next on his career agenda?

“I could get fired tomorrow,” Mason said during a mid-December interview at his office, chuckling as he stated the obvious — but highly unlikely — possibility.

“There’s always things that could happen. I’ve never really had a plan, and that’s served me well. I have a job to do. If I do that well, maybe an opportunity will present itself. I never imagined that I’d have the opportunity to do the kind of job I’m doing now. As far as I’m concerned, I’m way out ahead of any ambition I could have come up with. I’m enjoying what I’m doing and, so, since that approach has worked for me up to this point, I’m just going to stick with it.”

In the past, Mason has acknowledged that he doesn’t expect to stay at ORNL forever, and he reiterated that point recently. “I think eventually it’s probably healthy for me and healthy for the institution if I go and do something else,” he said.

In 2011, Mason’s name surfaced as a candidate for the top job at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. Although he never confirmed any involvement, he did reveal that such contacts aren’t unusual. “I get calls from headhunters about once a month,” he said.

Other science administrators of note have shared bits of wisdom about career paths.

“Leon Lederman (Nobel laureate and director emeritus of Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory) once said to me, ‘You know you can only be lab director for 10 years because every year you piss off about 10 percent of the people.’ And I think I’m doing OK. Maybe it’s because half our staff has been with us for less than 10 years, so maybe I’m kind of behind on my quota of annoying people.”

Al Trivelpiece, one of Mason’s predecessors at ORNL, told him he had to stay in the job for at least 10 years in order to have an impact.

Mason said he thinks he’ll know when the time to leave is right, adding, “I haven’t seen the opportunity yet that trumps what I’ve got now.”

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About Frank Munger

Senior Writer Frank Munger covers the Dept. of Energy's Oak Ridge facilities and many related topics — nuclear weapons, nuclear waste and other things nuclear, environmental cleanup and science of all sorts. Atomic City Underground is, first and foremost, a news blog, but there's room for analysis, opinion and random thoughts that have no place else to go.