For those managing a laboratory, the thought of running a facility with a budget of more than $1 billion sounds like a fantasy. For Eric D. Evans, PhD, director of the MIT Lincoln Laboratory, it’s a reality. However, the robust funds support 600 programs, thousands of employees, and a variety of technical facilities—all of which bring their own unique set of management, leadership, and operational challenges.
The MIT Lincoln Laboratory is a multidisciplinary federally-funded research and development center run by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for the Department of Defense. When the lab opened in 1951, its initial mission was to prototype the semi-automatic ground environment (also knows as SAGE) air defense system to protect the US against the Soviet bomber threat, according to Evans. “For this system, the Lincoln staff developed the first real-time computer for controlling a defense system, new digital communication techniques, and interactive computer displays,” says Evans.
For the last 70 years, Lincoln Laboratory researchers and technical staff have been playing a significant role in protecting the US against potential threats. “In the 1960s and 1970s, Lincoln Laboratory grew many new missions, including solid state electronics, communication systems, ballistic missile defense, space control, air defense technology, and air traffic control,” adds Evans.
Examples of recent projects include the development of new airborne ladar systems that have been used for ground surveillance for the US Central and Southern Commands, as well as for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief needs. Lincoln Laboratory teams also built new laser space communication prototypes for NASA applications, and an advanced airborne collision avoidance system for the Federal Aviation Administration.
Lincoln Laboratory teams have also been involved with addressing the COVID-19 pandemic. “When the COVID-19 pandemic began, we worked with MIT and others to develop private automated contact tracing technology through cell phones to reduce the spread of infections. This technology is now used throughout the world,” says Evans. Lincoln Laboratory continues to add new missions as the world evolves, including a focus on cybersecurity and biotechnology.
Given that any mission can be considered critical, prioritizing program development and investments can be an incredibly difficult task. As Evans explains, there is often healthy debate each year among executive management to determine how to best allocate the lab’s $1.2 billion budget, but that open and lively discussion is “helpful to us as we plan ahead.”
Investing in technology and people
One aspect of the Lincoln Laboratory that Evans highlights as needing continuous investment is the technical facilities, to keep them on the cutting edge and relevant. For example, the Lincoln Laboratory includes a microelectronics research and development fabrication laboratory that produces some of the nation’s most advanced electronics chips and focal planes. “We have to make significant investments each year in our microelectronics tools and equipment to ensure that we can pursue the technology we need. We also invest regularly in our prototyping and fabrication facilities, electromagnetics measurement ranges, and field test aircraft,” says Evans.
In addition to investments in existing labs, plans are in the works to build two new facilities to support Lincoln Laboratory’s system prototyping and technology development needs. As its website reads, “What sets us apart from many national R&D laboratories is an emphasis on building operational prototypes of the systems we design.” The first of the two buildings will be a compound semiconductor and microelectronics integration facility, and the second will be an engineering prototyping facility to consolidate and expand fabrication, integration, and testing capabilities, according to Evans. “Both buildings will be a major part of Lincoln Laboratory’s future success,” he says.
Despite all the other factors to choose from that could be considered unique about the Lincoln Laboratory—from the technical facilities and equipment to the project scope—Evans emphasizes that it is the human element that makes the lab truly unique. “We are very proud of our talented technical and administrative staff,” he says. “The great people that we work with everyday make Lincoln a very unique experience for many of our staff.”
That is why it is important that yearly investment for Lincoln Laboratory staff also remains a top priority. “Each year, we have internal courses to educate our staff about new technology areas, and we have competitive programs to fund the pursuit of their graduate degrees,” he says. Beyond financial investment, Evans and other leaders of the Lincoln Laboratory encourage and promote a collaborative culture. “Our technical staff have much freedom to explore new technology areas, and we understand that our difficult projects may involve many failures on the way to the ultimate success,” explains Evans. “We expect our leaders to provide the high-level direction for a project, to encourage collaboration across our missions, and to treat our employees with care and respect.” This flexibility and collaboration enable teams to thrive and meet the demands of national security work.
Leading the way for innovation
The Lincoln Laboratory has a rich history, and has built a reputation of being at the forefront of innovative thinking. From its start in working to combat Cold War-era threats to today’s diverse mission areas that range from space security to information sciences, the lab staff continue to pioneer new technologies and products that help to keep us safe. “We have much flexibility to address new problems under our overarching mission of technology for national security; and throughout its history, Lincoln Laboratory has continued to evolve to address the most serious national security threats,” says Evans.