Last summer, Marvin Adams backpacked 560 miles through California on the Pacific Crest Trail. “My youngest son was with me all the way, and my eldest son joined us for the first 125 miles,” he says of the trek from Dunsmuir to Tuolumne Meadows.
This summer looks a little different for the former Texas A&M nuclear engineering professor. In April, Adams was confirmed by the United States Senate as the deputy administrator for Defense Programs of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) at the U.S. Department of Energy. In this role, Adams oversees programs for the design, maintenance, assessment, manufacturing, and dismantlement of all U.S. nuclear weapons. He’s also in charge of related programs that develop and maintain all the science, engineering, technology, supply-chain, and manufacturing capabilities associated with the U.S. nuclear stockpile.
The new job is a natural progression for Adams, who is considered by many to be America’s top academic expert on the stewardship of the nuclear stockpile and who has for decades served in advisory roles at Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore, and Sandia national laboratories.
Earlier this year, Adams spoke to NSS about his career path and his new role at NNSA.
After earning three degrees in nuclear engineering, you worked at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and then, in 1992, began teaching at Texas A&M. Why did you decide to transition into education?
At Livermore, I worked as a code developer in the nuclear weapons program. An important factor in my decision to work there was my belief that I benefited from deterrence and my conclusion that I should therefore be willing to contribute to maintaining the deterrent. When I started at Livermore, I had already formed a positive impression of national laboratories, having spent time as a student at three labs, and this impression has only grown stronger. I view the national laboratories as national treasures, and I think they are outstanding places for people who want to help solve important problems.
While I greatly enjoyed my work at Livermore, I always had in mind the possibility of returning to academia after several years of learning and growing at the lab. One reason was the joy of those “light-bulb” moments when students grasp exciting, important, fascinating concepts. Another was the freedom to work on any interesting problem for which I could find support, including the freedom to participate in service related to national security. Texas A&M offered the opportunities I sought, and as a bonus was much closer than Livermore to our extended family.
What advice do you have for young people who are interested in working as scientists or engineers at one of our national laboratories?
Focus on becoming a technical expert with deep knowledge in your field, but also learn about activities and unanswered questions in other fields. Stay conscious of uncertainties, for example in the quantitative understanding of how a complex natural or engineered system operates. Learn how to communicate technical truths, including the reality of uncertainties, to people in different fields and to nontechnical audiences.
During your time at Texas A&M, how did you stay involved with the national labs? Is there a committee, advisory group, or professional society that was particularly meaningful for you?
During my first decade in academia, my interactions with the national labs were almost entirely technical, as I collaborated with laboratory researchers to develop improved computational physics methods. In the past two decades, these technical collaborations have continued, but most of my involvement has become participation in review committees, advisory panels, oversight committees, and in-depth study groups. My participation in the Jason [independent scientific advisory] group has been particularly meaningful because I think the group provides significant value to the country. Jason work has also required and enabled me to learn about many aspects of national security.
You are the new deputy administrator for Defense Programs. How will you lead this branch of the NNSA?
A partial answer is that I will emphasize teamwork. Defense Programs is a huge, diverse team that must overcome daunting challenges in the next few years to deliver long-awaited results on which national security depends. Success requires capable team members who are motivated to expend great effort. Leaders can help to foster the necessary motivation and sense of shared purpose. I want individuals to understand what they must do, how it contributes to national security, and why it is worth significant effort. I want them to see that their leaders value their opinions and contributions. I want team members to anticipate the excitement and satisfaction they will gain when the team succeeds at its difficult, important missions.
U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm called you “the nation’s foremost academic expert on safeguarding our nuclear stockpile.” How does one become an academic expert on safeguarding the stockpile, and how has this experience prepared you for your new role?
Just over two decades ago I started encountering and accepting opportunities to serve on committees that reviewed and advised on stockpile work at the three nuclear-weapons laboratories. I studied and learned a great deal about the stockpile, and stewardship thereof, from this work. This began a cycle: an opportunity to serve required studying, learning, and contributing, which led to more opportunities, and so on. This cycle has continued through the present time. I am grateful for these opportunities and grateful to the many people who have patiently taught me over the years. I look forward to continued studying, learning, and contributing in the Defense Programs role.
Secretary Granholm also said that you “will work to keep our nation—and our world—safe from nuclear threats.” How do you approach this huge responsibility, especially given the often unpredictable and competitive state of the world?
One part of the U.S. strategy to keep the nation and world safe from nuclear threats is to maintain a safe, secure, effective nuclear deterrent. Defense Programs obviously plays a central role in this, and I will do my best to help the organization deliver on this vital mission.
Defense Programs plays a supporting role in other efforts to keep us safe from nuclear threats. Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation, headed by Corey Hinderstein, is the lead organization for many such efforts, and I look forward to working with her as Defense Programs supports her team. Defense Programs also supports efforts led by the NNSA Counterterrorism and Counterproliferation organization, headed by Jay Tilden, and efforts led by the intelligence community. I look forward to working with them in support of their important work.
As the next deputy administrator for Defense Programs, how will you continue to work specifically with Los Alamos?
Los Alamos and its employees form a large portion of the Defense Programs team. They have been responsible for many of the most difficult, high-consequence, high-visibility tasks in the weapons complex in recent years, and this will continue. I expect to maintain excellent relations with Los Alamos and the other NNSA laboratories as we work together for the good of the nation. I expect Los Alamos employees to continue their excellent contributions to national security and to continue getting even better as they learn from their experiences. ★