Accelerating Science Discovery - Join the Discussion

Dr. Bob Marianelli: A Catalyst for Accelerating Chemical Science

by Sol Lederman on Fri, September 05, 2008

OSTI is founded on the principle that science advances only if knowledge is shared. The OSTI Corollary takes this concept to a new level. It holds that accelerating the spread of knowledge accelerates the advance of science. The advance of science can also be accelerated by funding more bright scientists. In the following blog article, Dr. Bob Marianelli reminisces and gives his perspectives about advancing science throughout his remarkable career.

Dr. Marianelli led a distinguished career as a DOE Program Manager and Director of the Chemistry Division. He had the privilege to shape and manage the process by which the Department of Energy identifies bright chemists and follows their progress. Along the way, he fostered the work of many truly extraordinary scientists, including six who went on to win the Nobel Prize, perhaps the top honor a scientist can receive. In addition to fostering the work of top scientists, Dr. Marianelli played a key role in the construction of a huge facility at Pacific Northwest National Lab, and he positively influenced the direction of other major research facilities.



Love of science and learning from an early age

SL: What inspired you to pursue a science career?

BM: Well, I was very much interested in mathematics and science from my earliest recollection even before I started school. And, my siblings - my older brother and sister - encouraged me when I was very young because they could see that I was very good with numbers. Since they were six and eight years older they would give me all kinds of help and interesting challenges.

SL: And, you majored in Chemistry?

I got my Bachelors degree, actually in Mathematics, from the University of Delaware. I was carrying a lot of Chemistry classes because I was originally going to be a double major in mathematics and Chemistry but I got married very young and was working and it was hard to take lab courses. So, I became a Math major only so that I could graduate in a timely fashion. But, I took enough Chemistry to be able to go to Graduate School in Chemistry. I went to Berkeley for my PhD work in Chemistry. And I was one of the ones that they pushed through during the Sputnik era so I was in and out of there in three years.



Career path

SL: What did you do once you had your PhD?

BM: I got my PhD in 1966. I accepted a faculty position with the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. I taught and did research. I was granted tenure and was promoted to an associate professor. I'd say I was reasonably successful but not as successful as I wanted to be as a research scientist. Although I never had trouble doing research, I did have trouble asking for money to support research.

SL: How did your career bring you to DOE?

BM: In the fall of 1977, the Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA), which was about to become the Department of Energy, contacted me. I interviewed and was offered a position under the Intergovernmental Personnel Act- I took a leave from Nebraska and I went to ERDA. I took a permanent position with DOE after two years.

SL: What positions did you hold with DOE?

BM: I worked as a Program Manager in the Department of Energy for about eight years. And it was at that time that I built up certain programs in Chemistry. In 1986, I was appointed Director of the Chemical Sciences Division. I stayed in that position for twelve years.

Notable career as Program Manager

SL: Why did you become a program manager?

BM: Being at Berkeley, I was a research assistant at what is now the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, I knew something about national labs, I had also gained experience with universities and it just seemed to me that I would accomplish more by managing science than by performing science.

SL: I do want to talk about your involvement with some very significant things but first I'd like to learn about how you made a name for yourself as a program manager, setting some very high standards.

BM: Because of my university "upbringing," I have always been a strong believer in merit-based peer review. And, I believe that if you're going to work for the government, you need to be, above all else, objective and fair. My job, as a Program Manager, was to try to find the good people and to help them be successful. Striving to be straightforward, honest and fair has helped me tremendously in my career.

SL: In a very real way you got to model successful merit-based peer review in DOE, didn't you?

BM: Yes, I did. We started by having people with technical expertise added to our review teams for National Labs when that was not the norm. And, slowly over the years, we formalized that. Also, initially we couldn't perform our reviews independent of the labs. So, we had them appoint their review teams with our approval of the members and we were there when they were performing their reviews. That worked reasonably well for a while. Later, we were allowed to appoint our own review teams and control the process, so we did. And, we were the only major division doing that, for both national lab programs and university programs. It's one of the reasons so many good people have been supported and why the programs are as strong as they are, because nobody gets a free ride, everybody understands the ground rules - do good work, you get rewarded. And, what does it mean to do good work? It means good science relevantto the Department of Energy.

SL: If you had to pick one and only one accomplishment, which would you be most proud of and why?

BM: Well, it's hard to say. I could pick one of the labs I was involved with but I won't. I believe that practicing objectivity and fairness in the selection of research to be supported is one of the things that I was instrumental in putting on a firm footing.

Influence over major research facilities

SL: What was your biggest role in helping to advance science particularly in the context of the major research facilities that you helped to get going?

BM: If you're going to support basic research you're really going to have try to put aside personal prejudices that your area of science is more important or relevant. At the same time, you have to have the courage of your convictions because you can't support everything. Well, one of the things that I have felt that the Department of Energy was going to have to face up to was dealing with the environmental issues associated with the production and the conversion of energy. And, that that was going to cause more problems down the road than almost anything else if it wasn't dealt with and it wasn't as if we had all the answers on a shelf and could just take them off as needed. In other words, a lot of science and research was needed. I felt strongly that the physical sciences were crucial to underpin a lot of the advances that you would be made in the environmental sciences and that it was the coupling between physical sciences with other natural sciences including computer science that was going to ultimately be required to deal with a number of these environmental issues.

SL: I know that you influenced the creation and/or direction of a number of research facilities. Tell me some of the highlights.

BM: The creation of the Environmental Molecular Science Laboratory at the Pacific Northwest National Lab was a massive undertaking. It cost $230 million to build. I was the person who stayed with that at the Department of Energy from the first day of planning until it went operational in '96. We started planning the early '80s. But, I never had the formal responsibility for the project. This is a good example of my effort to bring physical sciences more to bear on environmental issues.

Another significant thing I did in my career with the government was that I inherited the Combustion Research facility at Sandia Livermore. It had been built and went operational I believe in '81. And, when I became Division Director then I inherited more direct responsibility for it. We managed to upgrade and expand it. The Combustion Research Facility is a model of ways to encourage and to have in real time interaction and collaboration between national labs, universities, and the private sector in chemical physics principally but also in chemical engineering sciences and other disciplines, all related to the goal of understanding and improving the combustion process. That facility exists today, under a different name I believe, and it is very successful.

The Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lab, which had been an NSF-supported facility, became a Department of Energy supported facility. I found myself taking over the direct interaction with them.

I partnered with NSF and we funded and started the Environmental Molecular Science Institutes. These institutes exist in a number of campuses across the country.

I got money out of the blue one time, $3.5 million, to start an advanced battery program. We were able to put together workshops, reports, and people who could guide us in establishing the program, reviewing it, and getting it off the ground. That program contributed significantly to some of the things that are important today in advanced batteries and fuel cells.

I worked with the people at Thomas Jefferson Lab, and their free electron laser facility. Thomas Jefferson Lab had become a world leader in superconducting electron accelerator technology during the construction of CEBAF. They applied that expertise to their free electro laser It was a remarkable success. As soon as they flipped the switch, it lased. And, before the end of the day they had set a new world record for power out of a free electron laser operating in the infrared region. They later applied their expertise to build the superconducting part of the linac for the Spallation Neutron Source. A big project that was built at Oak Ridge National Lab by a six lab cooperation and cost approximately $1.4B.

A knack for identifying talent

SL: You've funded a number of very successful researchers. To what do you attribute your great success?

BM: The basic principles of fairness and honesty have stood me in good stead. It's true that if you look back at the people I've started grants with, some of them have been enormously successful in science. We supported several scientists who became Nobel Laureates. I never cared about being in the limelight. I only wanted to accomplish things. That was my goal.

SL: I understand that the process of objective review is a really important element for identifying someone who has the best chance of being a successful scientist. But, do you think that you had any particular secret beyond that -- any kind of intuition or other experience that maybe is a little bit more difficult to quantify that helped you to identify so many successful scientists?

BM: I encouraged my staff and I tried myself to get as much input from the community as possible through various mechanisms: jobs, attendance at meetings, etc. And, just as people who listen to music say that they can tell music that they like even though they may not know in detail why they like it. The same is true about science. If you listen to a presentation, you can often tell who's got it and who doesn't in terms of science -- who's got the real talent and creativity.

SL: I hear you and I believe that you're being humble in the fact that there is also a skill and an art to identifying people who, if they go through the rigorous peer review process, will succeed because, in particular, you have a pretty broad background and, in my judgment, a very solid grounding in the physical sciences which I think may give you an advantage over more business-oriented program managers who weren't maybe as steeped in science as you are.

BM: I did always say that I knew more chemistry than anyone on my staff. And, I meant that in a kind way. What I meant was that I had been exposed to chemistry more broadly than anybody else on my staff. And, as a result, I knew maybe enough to be dangerous even but certainly not enough to carry out a research program. A lot of my staff were narrower but that was ok because they were managing programs that fit their experience and background.

SL: Could you give me a bulleted list of qualities that people have that have a knack for science?

BM: I'm not sure that I can do that. I can tell you that a piece of science is important and worthy of being noted but it won't be until later that I can tell you why.

SL: What do you mean when you say that you won't be able to tell why a piece of science is noteworthy until later?

BM: Think about things like global positioning satellites. The fundamental basis for them is our ability to measure time with unprecedented accuracy, and that can be traced to a lot of different developments. A major one is the atomic physics that allowed atoms to be used to time things. The frequencies of certain atomic transitions were so well determinable that they became new standards. That ultimately led to some of these things that we now enjoy that are dependent on that ability to measure time so accurately. But, at the time, it was important, but to scientists, not more broadly. Scientists couldn't tell you why, other than that they were able to do something that they weren't able to do before. But, back then, they couldn't tell you that their science would serve as the basis for all of these things that would better our lives.

I dare say that this was true of Einstein's work as well. A lot of people don't know that he got the Nobel Prize "for his services to Theoretical Physics, and especially for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect" , not for the theory of relativity. Why is that? Because at that time, the theory of relativity was still somewhat controversial so people recognized his genius and that he should get the Nobel prize and there wasn't anything wrong with recognizing Einstein for his work in discovering the photoelectric effect and giving him the Nobel prize for it, but it's not the crowning achievement of Einstein's career. But Einstein obviously had what it takes.

Overseeing the work of six outstanding scientists who were to win Nobel prizes

SL: You had the good fortune of identifying and/or fostering the work of many truly extraordinary scientists, including six who went on to win the Nobel Prize, perhaps the top honor a scientist can receive. I believe the six Nobel Laureates were Yuan Lee, Bill Schrock, Bob Grubbs, Sherwood Rowland, Donald Cram, and Richard Smalley.

BM: Yes, that's right.

SL: Let's discuss each of them. Tell me first about your involvement with Yuan Lee.

BM: Yuan got his Nobel Prize for molecular beam work and chemical dynamics. He was actually a graduate student and post doc at Berkeley at the same time I was. Yuan went from there to Harvard to post doc with Dudley Herschbach. And, it was at that time that they did the work that resulted in a share of the Nobel Prize "for their contributions concerning the dynamics of chemical elementary processes" with John C. Polanyi. I know Yuan very well because before and after 1986 we were supporting his research through our Chemical Physics program.

SL: Bill Schrock and Bob Grubbs shared a Nobel Prize, didn't they?

BM: Yes, they did. I started grants with a lot of the science community working in the area of organometallic chemistry related to homogeneous catalysis. The American Chemical Society (ACS) started to give an award in that area but this was well after we started our program. We weren't the only source of support but we were a major source of support. I think the first ten winners of the ACS prize were supported under our catalysis program. I personally started the grants with Bill Schrock and Bob Grubbs back in the '78- to '80 timeframe. They shared the Nobel Prize for 2005 with Yves Chauvin" for the development of the metathesis method in organic synthesis"


SL: And Sherwood Rowland?

BM: You know the ozone hole? Well, Sherry Rowland was a hot atom chemist that we supported. He and Mario Molina did work that led them to conclude that chlorine atoms released from the photolysis of chlorofluorocarbons in the troposphere would lead to the ozone hole through the catalytic destruction of ozone. I didn't have responsibility for Sherry's program but I was in the division. And, when I became Division Director I had indirect responsibility for his support.

SL: And Donald Cram?

BM: Donald Cram shared the Nobel Prize for the discovery and synthesis of crown ethers ("for their development and use of molecules with structure-specific interactions of high selectivity"). We were providing support for his research under our separations science program. He was pretty much a pure synthetic chemist and wasn't continuing with research very relevant to the Department of Energy. Ultimately, and, by mutual agreement, we stopped supporting his work.

SL: And, last but not least, there's Richard Smalley.

BM: We also supported Smalley, who shared a Nobel Prize for work with C60 and other "buckyballs." He was at Rice and did the work there. The reason we were supporting Smalley (we weren't supporting his work with carbon) was because we were encouraging him to look at making and studying the reactivity of metal clusters. The reason we were supporting him was because we had a heterogeneous catalysis program and we were interested in research with metal clusters. He was also doing related work with carbon. It was the recognition and correct structure prediction for C60 that attracted attention and got him a share of the Nobel Prize.


Slowing down, enjoying life more

SL: What have you been doing since you retired?

BM: Since retiring I've been consulting. I consult with Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Battelle, and some programs within DOE, principally within the Office of Biological and Environmental Research. I have also done some work with ACS and others. I'm 66 and recently had open heart surgery. I'm intending to slow down and enjoy life more.



OSTI and the Internet play a major role in advancing science

SL: Do you accept the OSTI premise that accelerating the sharing of knowledge accelerates science itself?

BM: I think there's truth to the statement in this way. If you're a practicing scientist then the more knowledge you have oftentimes the better off you're going to be. It's rare that the knowledge is just going to come out of your own thinking. There are some people who are probably so brilliant that they can make all kinds of deductions with simple inputs but most of us require more input, more knowledge, more information. So, to the degree that that's available to practicing scientists, it does accelerate science.

SL: So, what do you think are the roles of the Internet and the Web in terms of science communication?

When I was practicing science, I spent a lot of time in the library because I had an idea and I wanted to know if someone else had had that idea and published it. So, I did library research on that topic to see what was out there. You were very dependent on the quality of the library at the institution you were at. Yes, there were things like inter-library loan, but all those things took time. So, someone who was at a research institution with a better library had a significant advantage. The Internet has leveled the playing field because the information is available to everybody and everyone can afford to get it. Computers are cheap enough today and getting access to the Internet is easy enough that if we have the ability to access those scientific publications online, scientists aren't going to be hindered by a lack of access or knowledge. I believe that's important to practicing science. I believe that the more informed you are the better science you're going to do and it's going to be easier for you to get your science exposed to as large a segment as possible of the scientific community. I think it was Al Trivelpiece who pointed out to me that, before the Internet, the thing that allowed scientists to very quickly share results was faxes. Because you could fax someone a copy of your manuscript, or a few pages, and that way you could get information out to a large body. And, once you have it in the hands of some, they can pass it on to others. Well, that has been replaced by the Internet today.

SL: I'm sure you know that OSTI has a number of applications, many of them perform federated search, where they aggregate content from a number of sources. OSTI has a tremendous amount of pride in the applications it has created. What is your impression of OSTI's creations, initially of, then of Science Accelerator, World Wide Science, and others? And, what do you think of OSTI's work in the areas of advancing search?

BM: I have to say, that quite some time ago, I really didn't have use of OSTI applications because I didn't feel that they were doing that much that was valuable to the conduct of science and was a bit of a pain for investigators and ourselves. I believe that has changed rather dramatically in more recent times and I give Walt Warnick a fair amount of credit for that. I don't think it hurt that OSTI and their activity became more closely affiliated with the Office of Science and the Office of Advanced Scientific Computing. Nevertheless, I think that Walt has seen that there is a need and an opportunity and has gone about meeting that need in the best way he knows, with limited resources.

Thought on the funding and dissemination of research, particularly in the physical sciences

SL: Do you believe that scientists and scientific programs funded by the public have an obligation to share the findings of their R&D?

BM: Yes. I believe in open access. And, I realize that there are people who make money providing information. But, I think there's also something to be said for the fact that the government is the primary supporter of basic research in this country. And, that research is paid for with taxpayer's dollars. I believe that, therefore, we should find a way to have the results of those expenditures available to the public at large. Now, you could take a hard line and say "well, anything the government supports, they have to provide and it gets published in open form. And, someone else would say, on the other extreme, that the government should stay out of it altogether, that people can subscribe to commercial publications if they want access to that information. Since both models of information access exist now, I think we've got to find a way to compromise. The goal is to provide. So, let's recognize that there may be ways to do that where the government somehow, and this isn't unprecedented, would use the private sector to help carry out the mission of providing access to the information to the public.

SL: Do you think that the DOE research program has the proper visibility and that it's properly recognized?

BM: No. They have more visibility and recognition in some areas than in others. Because they're so dominant, and have been for such a long time, in high energy and nuclear physics, they get tremendous visibility there.

SL: Over the last decade, the biological sciences, especially at NIH, have enjoyed large funding increases, while the physical sciences like chemistry have not. Is this good for the nation? Is this even good for the biological sciences, given that so much of the progress in biology is predicated on previous advances in the physical sciences?

BM: Being a physical scientist, I believe that we need balance and I think, in recent times, things have gotten out of balance. They have been out of balance in the past as well. There was a day when Physics was the big thing. Then there was the time when space, under NASA, was the darling. But, more recently it has been biomedical research and NIH. And, there was a doubling of their budget that occurred over a five year time period. Realizing that the budget went from $13 or $14 billion to $26 billion, that's a very substantial change over a five-year period. That's an average of about 15% increase per year. The increase in the last two of the five years was greater than the entire NSF budget for Research and Related Activities. So, things have gotten very out of balance.

Now, in recent times, there has been an effort to correct that imbalance. There was a NAS report that the administration used to justify the American Competitiveness Initiative. And that report, "Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future," called for, among other things, a substantial increase in the funding for physical sciences. And, supposedly the commitment was made to double the budgets for the physical sciences over, I believe a 10 year period. But, unfortunately, those monies have not materialized. So, this imbalance persists today. It's not healthy, and it's not even healthy for the biomedical sciences. Much of what they do has an underlying physical science knowledge that enables that. The ability to rapidly sequence genomes, for example, is enabled, at least in part, by computing technology, and analytical chemistry which are part of the physical sciences. Advances in X-ray technology and magnetic resonance imaging are other examples of biomedical science enabled by the physical sciences. Unfortunately, funding increases for the physical sciences, which I think are justified and needed, haven't come.

The state of science and education in America

SL: A couple of generations ago, every school kid knew the names of Einstein and Marie Curie. Do you agree that science has lost its place in the imagination of the public? If so, why is it the case?

BM: Well, back in the early 1900s, science was a much smaller enterprise than it is today. Science has increased enormously in breadth and so it's harder today for a single individual to have the type of impact that would allow them to be recognized by the public at large. There's also a tremendous pressure to be able to communicate in sound bites. I just don't think that lends itself to in-depth understanding or appreciation.

SL: Do you think there is any scientist living today who has captured the imagination of the American people?

BM: I was recently looking at the list of all-time greatest books. Can you guess what one of them was, which surprised me? It was "A Brief History of Time" by Steven Hawking. It wasn't that long ago that that book came out and it created a bit of a stir. I think that scientists have to go out of their way to try to explain the significance of things they're doing because science is so broad and deep it may not be so obvious why it's important. Plus, some scientists are more gifted than others in explaining the significance of things they're doing. So, something like Steven Hawking talking in that book comes as close as many things to capturing the public's imagination. But, I don't think that there are very many scientists, at least not until later in their careers, who are willing to communicate that way to the pubic.

Einstein didn't have to communicate his science to the public -- others did it for him. I believe that's also the case with Marie Curie. Of course, the communication happened at a time when people could appreciate the significance of what they had done and the hardships they had to overcome and the stories were told for them. I don't know how many people outside of the physics community would have been capable of writing a book like Hawking's.

SL: Do you think that the U.S. is on par with other countries regarding science education and if not, why not? And, how can the U.S. improve science education and motivation for kids in school.

BM: Well, you often hear that we're not on par with other countries in the world. I think, though, that it depends on what level you look at. I believe that our system encourages creativity as much as any other system in any other country at grade levels beyond K-12. If someone is adequately educated in grades K-12 then given the opportunity to demonstrate their own creativity, they can succeed in our system better than in any other system in the world. If you look at how we support scientists, our system is quite diverse and there are more opportunities and sources for support. I've run into many scientists who couldn't get support in other agencies who got support through us. In other parts of the world they might not have gotten support at all.

I think that maybe in terms of formal education, we may not measure up, particularly in earlier years, but, later, I think our system has produced some of the best, if not the best, scientists in the world. A lot of people have come to study in the United States and many have flourished here and have done their great work here. What's happening to us today is that so many other countries have realized how important many of these individuals are to the advancement of science and to society more broadly and they're doing everything they can to get these scientists back home to their own countries. They don't stay in the United States to the degree that they used to. That is a concern. We have to attract young people to science who either are or are going to be US citizens.

SL: At the K-12 level what do you think that our government can do to encourage kids to excel in science and to go to the advanced levels where they'll be able to do the creative research?

BM: One of the things I think that we can do is to try to give people more of an appreciation of science than we currently do. When I would see students at the university, many of them hated science. And, what I was teaching them they particularly hated. It was Chemistry. I wasn't trying to give them an appreciation for Chemistry, I was trying to teach them Chemistry. That's what was called for. When I took Chemistry and Physics in high school they didn't teach us much about appreciation. I got that through my own reading. I think we should teach more appreciation in our schools. And, if we had to be less rigorous, be more rigorous with just the students who wanted it and would benefit from it. We might be better off because I think our level of scientific literacy in the United States is woefully inadequate. I think so many exciting and important things in people's everyday lives are dependent upon science that they should know and appreciate and they would if they were taught it, but they're not.


SL: Any final thoughts?

BM: One thing that I want to say is that while I feel that I have done a lot in my life and in my profession because I was able to get a good education. I worry about the education of our young people. And, I'm concerned about the decline in the importance of the family in the way we live. I know how critically important my family was to me and it wasn't just my mom or dad because neither of them had much of a formal education. As I said earlier, my siblings - my older brother and sister - encouraged me when I was very young because they could see that I was very good with numbers. Since they were six and eight years older they would give me all kinds of help and interesting challenges when I was very young. But, that wouldn't have happened if we hadn't had a close knit family. And, neighborhood was important. Everyone in my neighborhood knew who I was. If I did something wrong they would certainly let my mom and dad know. So, I think it's really important that somehow, the family be a cohesive unit.

SL: Thank you, Dr. Marianelli, for sharing the wisdom of your experience. I'm sure your words will be well received.

BM: Thank you.


Other Related Topics: doe, osti
Page last updated on 2016-04-25 13:10

About the Author

Sol Lederman's picture
Sol Lederman

Contractor to OSTI serving in various technical and communication roles.