“I guess you could say my preferred style of management is ‘transparency,’” said Jens Dilling, the newly appointed Associate Laboratory Director, or ALD, for the Neutron Sciences Directorate, or NScD, at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory. “I really believe in being transparent and sharing information, which helps build trust throughout an organization.”

Despite his transparency, in no way has Dilling been an invisible man. In fact, he has been remarkably easy to find — and see — since he joined NScD as interim ALD in August 2023. Since then, on top of his open-door policy and frequent email updates, he has held three town hall meetings with the 700-plus NScD staff. This degree of accessibility and open communication helped earn him the full-time position he started on April 1.

An experimental nuclear physicist and leader in the field of precision experiments for fundamental and applied nuclear physics, Dilling brings extensive scientific and management experience to his role overseeing the neutron scattering and user research programs at the Spallation Neutron Source and High Flux Isotope Reactor.

“We are a very advanced R&D organization and I prefer working with people who understand they are part of the information and decision chain,” said Dilling. “Of course, NScD is very big and complex, so somebody has to have the final authority to make decisions, but that doesn't mean we cannot share the information that goes into those decisions. Information sharing and trust building go both ways. If I don't share information, people cannot build trust with me, and if nobody tells me anything, then how can I trust them?”

A strategic move from Canada to Knoxville

Dilling joined ORNL in 2021 as the director of Institutional Strategic Planning. In this role, he facilitated and oversaw the strategic positioning of the laboratory for science and technologies in the fields of nuclear, energy and physical sciences; neutron sciences; biological and environmental systems; and nuclear security.

Dilling had previously served as ALD for physical sciences at TRIUMF, Canada's particle accelerator center. Before that, he served as deputy head of TRIUMF’s science division and led its Department of Nuclear Physics and the Isotope Separator and Accelerator.

Dilling’s physics research focuses on characterizing the strong force using precise mass measurements, using particle accelerator and atomic physics techniques to investigate nuclear physics questions. He proposed, codesigned and led the construction of the TRIUMF Ion Trap for Atomic and Nuclear science. Dilling has been an adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia since 2004. He received his doctorate and undergraduate degrees in physics from the University of Heidelberg, Germany.

Dilling cites his experience in experimental nuclear physics as a source of knowledge that benefits him in his new role. “I’ve worked on beamlines my entire scientific life and know how it is to be on the front line, getting stuff done under tremendous time pressure when you are waiting for secondary particles to trickle down the beamline. Also, for almost 10 years, I was responsible for the TRIUMF user program, so I understand how those programs work.

“My actual expertise is in precision experiments. I designed and built precision instruments and experiments from scratch alongside my students and postdocs,” Dilling said “So, I appreciate that if you want to be excellent in science, you have to pay attention to the instruments and techniques you use. Also, the physics itself doesn't change, so there are a lot of transferable skills in the science areas.”

Keeping the big picture in focus

While heading up ORNL’s office of strategic planning, Dilling guided the laboratory’s annual strategic planning process, including the development of laboratory strategies, strategic investments and annual planning, as well as managing Laboratory Directed Research and Development programs.

“I think it was a key position for me to learn a lot about the laboratory — its mission and how it functions — from its ethos to its financial business model. I was also able to see and appreciate many opportunities for collaboration and synergies.

“Another important big-picture component was my participation in DOE’s Oppenheimer Science and Energy Leadership Program. I was able to travel to all of the DOE labs with a group and learn how the DOE complex works and how the individual laboratories function. They all have different contracts, and they all have their individual flavors, so that was very, very insightful as well. I learned more about how the DOE mothership works.”

Clearing things up

Dilling did not apply for the ALD position originally. With his commitment to transparency, he explained why. 

“Some people have asked why I didn’t initially go after the ALD position when it first opened up. The truth is that when I stepped in as interim, I was asked whether I wanted to apply for the permanent role, and I said no. I didn’t think I had enough expertise in neutrons. Later on, laboratory management came back and said, ‘We've seen what you've done and you might want to reconsider and apply for the position.’ So I reconsidered. It turned out that I had a significant amount of transferable skills from my previous jobs, including working as a nuclear physicist. And after serving as interim ALD for five months, I also had a better understanding of the directorate and what a well-oiled machine it is.”

Family and students keep him grounded

During his 20 years at TRIUMF, Dilling maintained his faculty seat as an adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia.

“I kept teaching because I always felt it was necessary to be grounded and to continue teaching students. There’s nothing more refreshing than to teach a course for the third or the fourth time and get a good question to which you don't know the answer. It makes you appreciate that there's still a lot of questions you don't have the answer to. My family also helps keep me grounded when I come home from work and they remind me that I’m still talking like I’m at the lab.

“These kinds of things are good reminders that there's a real world out there, and they remind us of why we do this kind of work. It's important to remember that all of the high-tech, super complicated stuff we're doing is on the taxpayers’ dollar. And we need to deliver for them and not just for ourselves.

“People sometimes assume that ORNL and its facilities and scientists have been here forever and deserve to be here forever. But that's not OK, because what we do and where we do it are not entitlements. You cannot just tell the taxpayers that this is too complicated for you to understand. You can never say just give us the money and don't ask questions.”

High intensity at work and play

“You know, I enjoy my work and I like to play sports. And everything I do is at a high level of intensity. I used to play a lot of sports, and if you play intensely at sports, eventually your body pays the price! Now there's not much left besides swimming that I can do and climb out of bed the next day relatively pain free. So, I usually go swimming three or four times a week. We have two dogs, so we like to go out hiking with them. And I enjoy going kayaking and paddleboarding.

Dilling and his wife, Petra, have three kids. Daughter Lulu, 18, and son Silas, 24, both live in the Knoxville area. Their son Darian, 25, attends the University of British Columbia.

UT-Battelle manages ORNL for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States. The Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit energy.gov/science. — Paul Boisvert