Skip to main content

Alumni Confidential: Kim Budil

June 16, 2023
Lindsay Morgan interviews Kim Budil

Interview, Alumni Confidential

In our latest Alumni Confidential, we talk with Kim Budil, the director of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) and an alumna of IGCC’s Public Policy and Nuclear Threats Boot Camp. In the interview, Kim reflects on the longtime partnership between the University of California and the National Laboratories, shares what it’s like being the first woman director of LLNL, and considers the state of national security in a time of rapid innovation and proliferating security threats.

You are the 13th director of the Lawrence Livermore National Lab and its first woman director, an applied physicist with expertise in high energy density science and lasers who received your doctorate at UC Davis. Today, you work at the commanding heights of innovation, technology, and national security. When you think back to your graduate student days, did you ever imagine you would end up in a job like this?

From a very early age, I was very clear on what I wanted to be when I grew up: I wanted to be a lawyer and I wanted to work in government. I’m not sure why this came about; I just had this idea that those were important jobs. In high school, I was very good at science and math, and I especially liked physics. Biology required memorizing too much stuff, chemistry was too complicated and dangerous. In physics, with half a dozen equations, you can derive the entire universe.

But I still wanted to be a lawyer. Then I talked to some lawyers. And they said, you should really get a technical degree because it will open up other areas of the law, like patent law. So I declared as a physics major as an undergrad. Pursuing that degree challenged me in ways nothing else did. I loved understanding how the world worked at a very fundamental level. I got introduced to experimental science and realized that I am an experimental physicist, by both training and temperament. I loved building things and interrogating the world around me in a very tangible way. By the end of my undergraduate years, my career path had entirely changed.

What’s interesting is how these two things have come together. That original interest in politics, or policy, and in government is now very directly connected to the work I do in the national security community. So I feel very lucky—I ended up at an even better place than I could have imagined, because I couldn’t have envisioned this job from where I was even 10 years ago.

In December 2022 major, LLNL achieved self-sustaining fusion ignition for the first time, begging the question, are we closer to fusion energy? Can you explain what happened?

So, fusion is the process that fuels the sun and the stars and it’s also the physics that’s at the heart of modern thermonuclear weapons. The only place on Earth where we create those conditions historically has been in nuclear weapons. The question that was raised in the wake of the invention of the thermonuclear weapon was: could you create those conditions in the laboratory under controlled conditions where you could really understand them? And, of course, they have to be on a much smaller scale. As such, they’re going to require new kinds of scientific instruments. So, people who were in the nuclear weapons program at the laboratory started thinking about how would you create a fusion testbed in a laboratory.

A researcher at the lab named John Nuckolls, who later became director of the lab and is still working— he’s in his early 90s—postulated that you could use lasers to create the pressure that you would need to compress a very small capsule full of deuterium and tritium, which are essentially heavy isotopes of hydrogen. And if you can compress them enough to a high enough density and high enough temperature fast enough and hold them together long enough, you can create a self-sustaining fusion platform.

It took 60 years to realize an experiment where we put in two megajoules of laser energy and got out over three megajoules of fusion yield. So, an extraordinary journey, and a great tale of big science—what national labs are all about—handing this incredible technical challenge from generation to generation, and building in the National Ignition Facility an engineering marvel—the world’s largest, most energetic laser. The laser itself is the size of three football fields in a facility that’s 10 stories tall. We concentrate all the energy from this massive machine into a little tiny target that’s about a centimeter in scale. That’s how you translate the conditions that happen in the center of the sun due to the massive gravity that the sun generates, because it’s so big, to a laboratory scale, where for a few billionths of a second, we create conditions that are more extreme than those you find in the sun.

The prospects of fusion energy are more real today than they’ve been at any time along this path. With investment and focus and innovation, this could be realized in the coming decades. We’re very excited about helping to build a community around this grand challenge.

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory Director Kim Budil speaks at the 2023 Nuclear Deterrence Summit in Arlington, Virginia. Photo courtesy of NNSA/DOE.

It’s good to be reminded that the federal government supports very long-term goals across many administrations—that we can make intergenerational commitments. It’s also interesting that this happened at the National Ignition Facility whose main purpose is not the environment or energy, it’s nuclear weapons.

The ignition facility that could create these fusion ignition conditions in the lab was a centerpiece of the original plan for the Stockpile Stewardship Program, because this is a way for us to interrogate the physics of nuclear weapons without doing underground nuclear testing [the last underground nuclear test was conducted in 1992]. From that perspective, it’s making the potential for any need to return to nuclear testing for the United States even more remote. From my perspective, it is an extraordinary advance for the stewardship program, enabling us to do everything from train and challenge our researchers so that we know they’re at the top of their game, to ensuring that the United States is in the best possible position to not return to nuclear testing.

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory has an extensive history of collaboration with the University of California system. UC managed Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos until the early and mid-2000s and still plays a major partnership role with both. IGCC has also played a role in that collaboration as a UC-wide research network. Physicist Herb York, who was the first chancellor of UC San Diego, was the founding director of IGCC and the first director of Lawrence Livermore. Why does the relationship between UC and the national labs matter?

The national labs grew directly out of the University of California. Ernest Lawrence founded Lawrence Berkeley National Lab to build his big cyclotrons, and went up the hill to create this new type of research institution [i.e., the Radiation Lab]. Lawrence Livermore grew directly out of the Radiation Lab, as it was called at that time, and of course, Los Alamos was managed by UC from its founding during the Manhattan Project.

The UC missions are education, research, and public service, and we are very resonant with all three. We take them in a slightly different order than the university. Obviously, we’re not an educational institution, although we consider the training and development of the next generation of scientists and engineers a core part of what we do—and, increasingly, educating the public about the work we do and the implications of science and technology.

Our core mission is to assure the safety, security, and reliability of the nation’s nuclear deterrent. That’s a really high consequence job. Every year I write a letter with my assessment on that question that goes to the president through the secretaries of energy and defense, as do the directors of Los Alamos and Sandia. My job is to give a high-quality, unbiased perspective on where our nation’s nuclear deterrent is. If I have to speak a hard truth or say something that might be difficult, [I know] that the University of California will stand behind me in that process with their commitment to the highest integrity and public service.

Sustaining the UC management of the labs has been a difficult topic with the faculty senate in numerous iterations. It is not always clear why LLNL and LANL in particular should be connected to a major public research university, given our national security missions. However, in my experience, when you sit down and talk to people about the public service component and the high consequence of the kinds of decisions and advice that we provide, we’ve gotten really great support from a broad range of faculty who have a wide variety of opinions on the work that we do and share that commitment to doing the right things in the service of the nation.

You were the first woman director of LLNL. Have there been times in your career when you felt that being a woman was a liability? How do you encourage young women now who want to come into the field?

We have made progress, but there’s a lot of progress to be made. The percentage of women, for example, getting PhDs in physics has changed a little since I got my Ph.D., but not a lot. In the physical sciences like engineering and physics, women comprise about 15 to 20 percent of Ph.D. recipients. In chemistry the numbers are a bit better, around 30 percent. These are still quite low and moving very slowly.

My journey was complicated, and in many respects, very difficult. I had many great mentors along the way, both men and women, which made a big difference in terms of building confidence in my own capabilities. In the national security realm, where I’ve worked most of my career, women are very underrepresented. I got used to that early on, but it is a double-edged sword. If I go to a conference and give a talk, the likelihood that it will be remembered is very high, because I’m likely one of a small handful of women who will present. But if I say something unfortunate, the likelihood it will be remembered forever is 100 percent.

I’m in a very lucky position today. My senior management team includes a significant number of women—both of my deputy directors are women, our chief of staff is a woman, and I have had two associate directors who are women. In my history at the lab, this is unprecedented. But if you take one turn of the wheel and go to the next group of people who are likely to ascend to most of those positions, they’re mostly men. And, it’s not because we don’t have great women at the lab or great women coming through the pipeline; it’s because of the numbers over time. The succession pools are not that diverse since the percentage of women in the relevant fields has stayed low for so long. In July, we’ll have three lab directors in the DOE lab complex who are women out of 17 labs and I was the only one as of a year ago.

The national labs have been a place where you can do, as you said, big science. For a long time, they were the only place. But it seems that the younger generation of scientists aren’t as aware of the national labs as a career option, or think more in terms of Silicon Valley or the private sector. As someone who’s spent virtually your entire career at a national lab, how do you attract younger generations and what do you see in the younger generation that is different?

We attract people by having the best capabilities in the world—the world’s biggest laser, the world’s largest computing capabilities, cutting-edge engineering capabilities. We keep them because of the larger purpose that we serve. People who come to our lab and stay tend to enjoy being part of a bigger team and having a long-term mission. Our early career scientists want to have an impact. They want to do something big and bold and ambitious and make a difference in the world. National security encompasses everything from energy and climate to biothreats, to our core work in nuclear deterrence, and increasingly integrated deterrence. We create a strong sense of contributing to something that’s bigger than yourself, which people are really interested in.

Another sweetener for our staff is that we get to do many different things. We can work with industry partners, hard technology development, and licensing. We can work with academic partners on basic research. We engage with the policy community in our relationship with places like IGCC, which is really important.

The thing that’s changed in academic environments is the focus on entrepreneurship. I agree with what you said—when I go out and give talks, people don’t really understand what the labs are, or what they do. The labs seem weird and foreign until you get into the details of the kinds of things that we do—we do basic science and open science, we publish papers, we do all these things that they think about. Once academia was solely focused on producing the next generation of academics. Today, when you read the news about high flyers in academia, they are spinning out companies, but it’s just another version of this relatively narrow worldview on what careers are available to students. We are working hard to make sure students understand that the labs represent something between these two—bridging between the basic research of the academic world and the more applied work of industry.

You’ve traversed some roads less traveled for scientists, including a stint at the University of California Office of the President. You were also a scientific adviser at the Department of Energy, which funds the lab. What made you interested in serving as an advisor at DOE and what was it like?

I’ve always been interested in working in the government. I tend to have a very expansive worldview. If you’ve ever read a novel by James Michener, he always starts from the creation of the universe. “And then there were planets, and then there was Earth, and then there was Hawaii, and then the history of Hawaii….” That’s how my brain works. I was working at the lab, and it struck me that what we lacked was cohesive strategies to do things at the scale we’re capable of. As I worked my way up, I realized the government has an important role to play in helping. In this case, the laboratory works in close partnership with the government, understanding the challenges we face and looking over the horizon to see what is coming. The government ultimately provides the funding to support our pursuit of big, ambitious technical approaches to solve these complex problems. I wanted to understand how the funding side of our business operated and how decisions were made, and hoped to help our colleagues in the government better understand the laboratory, so that we could have a stronger partnership.

During my first stint in government, I spent two years in a science advisor role relatively low in the National Nuclear Security Administration. It forever changed my opinion of both the government and the lab—the government for the better. There were so many people who were great: really committed to their jobs, trying very hard to do the right thing, but often without the right resources, without the support that they needed, with old technology. All the things you think about government bureaucracy. [My opinion of] the lab [changed] for the worse because we were so hard to work with. I would call the lab, and I would get pushback—and I was a lab employee. It was amazing. So I committed myself to changing how that relationship worked.

I went back to DC a second time at a more senior level, working for the undersecretary for science at the Department of Energy. In that role I was able to help shape the inputs for policymaking at the most senior levels of the government, which was fascinating. How do you make decisions in a highly technical environment with people and decisionmakers who are mostly not technical? How do you create the conditions for that to be good policymaking?

What have you learned about how to communicate science to non-scientists effectively, particularly in the policy space where important decisions are being made?

The first thing you have to understand is that you’re talking to very smart people. They just are not deeply expert in what you do. That’s the first thing. Another is: create a message that’s simple. This is something we really struggle with. If you’re doing scientific research, all the details are beautiful. They all matter, and precision is very important. When you’re talking to someone who’s not steeped in your field, even another scientist from a different discipline, all of that stuff obscures the main message. So, get really clear. What’s the essential information that needs to be communicated? Then try to find examples or analogies. So, we talked about the scales for inertial confinement fusion, where we take this tiny baby-size capsule, and squeeze it up. Well, that’s like taking a basketball and squeezing it down to the size of a pea. People can relate to that, like, oh, okay, I get it, that’d be really hard.

But the simple part is the most important. I call it glitter. Blow the glitter off and see what the core is and get that out front. The last piece of advice I give scientists when people are asking questions is to really listen to the question and ask yourself, is the answer to this question yes or no? Because nine times out of ten, someone will launch into a very long explanation. And at the end of it, the answer was yes. Lead with the yes.

Turning to geopolitics, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has refocused attention on nuclear security. Is the industrial base for nuclear weapons prepared for this new world we’re living in? Are we living in a new world?

I think we’re living in a new world and grappling with questions we’ve never had to grapple with, like the possibility of two peer adversaries. Even thinking about simple things, like, we talk a lot about the New START treaty for arms control. If you think about a tri-party arms control agreement, one plus one is never one. So how do you create a stable situation where everyone feels secure, when there are lots of pairings that could happen across three parties?

The other [priority] is driving a consensus around the need for things like nuclear modernization, sustainment, and revitalization of the infrastructure for our nuclear missions. It took a very long time to come to a consensus about the basics of modernization to deal with so many systems and platforms aging out. As the world changes rapidly, the likelihood that we need to have new or different capabilities goes up significantly. Even if we had the industrial base to do it, the people in our programs today have never faced that kind of challenge. So, we’re trying to build infrastructure, modernize all the production processes, and take advantage of the knowledge and tools we built up through the Stockpile Stewardship Program to very rapidly change how we think about nuclear deterrence. It’s both a great opportunity to build a much better nuclear security enterprise for the nation, but also an enormous challenge.

The National Nuclear Security Administration has been right at the heart of the questions being asked in Ukraine. We’ve had Russian forces shelling nuclear power plants. It’s just inconceivable the things that have happened. I’m very proud that the national lab community has come together to support Ukraine in this incredible crisis in very meaningful and on-the-ground ways. And I’m just really glad, as a citizen and a taxpayer, that that capacity exists.

What do you worry most about in thinking of the role of the lab in the near future? And what are the things on the horizon that you look at and say, actually, there’s something good happening here that we need to pay attention to?

National security has changed fundamentally. It used to be that the major elements of national security were controlled by nation-states. Space has been given over to commercial entities. Cyber is fully in the realm of commercial entities. The emergence of AI [artificial intelligence] is fully in the hands of industry and commercial entities. We don’t have a great understanding of how to manage the interface between private sector interests, public sector needs, national security, and innovation.

Second, the pace of innovation has changed very fundamentally as our tools have gotten better. With the emergence of tools like AI, you’re going to see the acceleration of knowledge generation unlike anything we’ve ever seen before and I’m not sure we’re ready for it. We’ve already seen the beginnings of this in fields like biology, where the barriers to entry are very low. And so, the number of people participating in the innovation ecosystem becomes very large. And the pace of innovation is just exploding. So that’s a huge opportunity. But the downsides are very real. We need to have people who are both participating in the open science, and keeping an eye out for the national security implications.

I worry about our ability as a nation to regain our ability to innovate fast in the public sphere, because industry is going to move fast. But it’s not always going to be in the public interest. Not because they’re bad, but because they’re focused on other things. And so, the need for the public sector to fundamentally change how we work—how quickly we can respond, how quickly we can marshal our capabilities, how quickly we can build new types of partnerships, bringing together these different spheres—is going to be what differentiates the outcomes over the next couple of decades. The United States won’t win by sheer might. We’re going to win by speed.

/ / /