Berkeley Lab

Director’s Q& A

Former Lab Director Paul Alivisatos has made diversity and inclusion one of his key strategic initiatives for Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Here he discusses his vision for a diverse and inclusive Lab and explains why these values are so important to the future of the Laboratory.

Q. Why did you want to launch this Diversity & Inclusion Initiative?
A. We want to have the best workforce possible, both scientific and operational. If we’re missing out on a broader demographic, then we need to find ways of accessing those talent groups. My job as Berkeley Lab Director is to make sure the Lab is in the best position to do the science, and that means attracting the best and brightest and making them feel welcome and part of the team. By several measures, we haven’t been making much progress in the past decade, and I am determined to change that.

Q. What do you think are some of the reasons for a lack of diversity in science and engineering?
A. Progress has been slow in the STEM fields all around the country; there are many societal factors inhibiting change. We do know there’s an unfortunate trend in the numbers where, as we go from high school to undergraduates to graduate students to postdocs to scientists to senior scientists, the population that winds up sticking with science gets more and more homogenous. This phenomenon has many drivers behind it, but there are many tools at our disposal and things we can do as an organization and as a community to help begin changing those trends.

Q. What can the Lab do to improve its diversity?
A. There are a lot of things we can do to improve. It starts with raising awareness of the issue at all levels. I want everybody at the Lab to act consciously when making hiring and promotion decisions, to work at making others feel welcome at the Lab, and to mentor early career staff with leadership potential from all backgrounds.

As part of this, we are looking at the strategies for how we do hiring. For example, we’ll take a close look at, when we have search committees, that they have the awareness they need going into a search about issues of implicit bias and also that they are more organized in making sure that they are creating a search candidate pool that’s broad and inclusive. We want to make sure for all of our searches that that’s done much more systematically. I think that can be very impactful, especially if we are proactive in reaching out and spreading the word that Berkeley Lab is a great place to work to diverse groups all around the country, particularly at minority serving institutions of higher education.

We’re asking all the managers all the way through the line to let us know what’s happening with respect to diversity and inclusion in their areas, and to try new things and share best practices. We’d like to see some results from that, within reasonable bounds. I don’t think we want to get in a mode where we’re mandating specific results by specific times because each hire has its own considerations. I would like to encourage every line manager to be creative in their own way and feel that if they are successful in this effort that the Lab will not only be a better community, but a more scientifically competitive organization.

Q. Besides internally at the Lab, are you also bringing this topic up externally or with your colleagues at other institutions?
A. I’m talking about this every place I get the opportunity. The other day I was with the chief human resource officers of all the national labs. They asked me what was on my mind. This was the first thing I brought up. I also brought it up in the context of the lab directors’ council, and also the chief research officers, and all different organizations that cut across national labs. We’ve raised the issue as well with a number of levels inside DOE. Everywhere we’ve spoken about this we’ve gotten a very positive response. People want to hear more about what we’re going to do and to help us. So I think there’s a lot of good will to try to make this work.

Q. What will success look like for this initiative?
A. If this initiative is successful, then in the coming years we’ll have a much more diverse workforce and access to more talent. That will just make us a better laboratory. We’ll have brought in people with many different backgrounds and different points of view and differing styles in how they approach problems. If we are more inclusive, we will attract and retain top talent, and our team will be more motivated to help the Lab succeed if they see that we want them to succeed as individuals.

We live in a country that’s phenomenally diverse. So I don’t see why the science community can’t be more like the citizens that we serve. It seems like a very reasonable goal. As one of the most preeminent research institutions, Berkeley Lab is an important part of the solution.