Thom Mason

Oak Ridge National Laboratory (CC BY NC ND 2.0)

Thom Mason, director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, to step down

Thom Mason, the director of the Department of Energy's (DOE's) Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, says that before he took his job he received two pieces of advice. One former director of a DOE national lab told him that a director couldn't serve more than 10 years because every year he'd infuriate another 10% of the staff. Another told him that it would take him 10 years to have a substantial impact. So Mason, 52, has decided that he will step down on 1 July, exactly 10 years after taking the directorship, the laboratory announced Friday. He will take a position with Battelle in Columbus, which helps manage several DOE national laboratories.

"It sort of feels that I've been here long enough to have an impact but not so long that I've worn out my welcome," Mason says. William Madia, vice president for SLAC National Laboratory at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, says, "It's been a very, very good run for Thom Mason—a lot of accomplishments."

In the past, directors of DOE's 16 national labs often served for a decade or more, but these days a typical tenure is now 4 or 5 years. So Mason is by far the longest serving director, ahead of Terry Michalske, director of DOE's Savannah River National Laboratory near Jackson, South Carolina, who has served since 2009. Oak Ridge is the largest of the 10 national labs supported by DOE's Office of Science, with a staff of 4500 and an annual budget of $1.5 billion.

A condensed matter physicist, Mason came to Oak Ridge in 1998 to lead construction of the lab's flagship facility, the $1.4 billion Spallation Neutron Source, which was completed in 2006. Under Mason's directorship, Oak Ridge also developed two supercomputers that ranked as the world's most powerful, took leading roles in multi-institutional centers to develop biofuels and high-precision simulations of nuclear reactors, established a center for advanced manufacturing, and overhauled much of the lab's infrastructure. That rejuvenation extends to the lab staff, Mason says. "More than 70% of our Ph.D.-level scientists and engineers have joined the lab in the past 10 years," he says.

Mason was a leader not only at the lab, but among DOE lab directors and in representing DOE's science efforts in Washington, D.C., Madia says. He has a well-deserved reputation for being forthright and dependable, says Madia, who served as Oak Ridge director from 2000 to 2003 and hired Mason to the lab. "If Thom Mason walks into your office and says he's going to do something, you can bank on it," he says.

Mason will take the post of senior vice president for laboratory operations at Battelle, which is involved in managing six DOE national labs and one for the Department of Homeland Security. "It's a very good move for both Battelle and for Thom," says Samuel Aronson, an emeritus physicist at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York, who directed that lab from 2006 until 2012. "After serving so long in the trenches he has a very deep and immediate grasp of how the labs operate."