WASHINGTON -- Patrick D. Gallagher took over a successful major research institution, looked it over, pulled it apart and put it back together in a configuration that, by all accounts, improved it.
That was the Gallagher approach to the National Institute for Standards and Technology. It may offer insights into how the 50-year-old physicist -- once a University of Pittsburgh graduate student who studied under now provost emeritus James Maher -- might approach his new job as chancellor of his alma mater.
Mr. Gallagher will succeed Mark Nordenberg, who is stepping down Aug. 1 but will remain on faculty.
One of the first things Mr. Gallagher did when he became director was restructure the heart of NIST -- its laboratories. For some researchers, the changes seemed unorthodox, but they had been working alongside him for 16 years and trusted his vision.
Instead of separating scientists by expertise -- chemists in one laboratory, mechanical engineers in another, for example -- Mr. Gallagher grouped them by mission. That helped improve collaboration and reduce redundancy, employees said.
"I was the longtime head of the chemistry laboratory, and in the past if I'd hired a physicist, the head of our physics laboratory might wonder why," said Willie May, NIST's principal deputy director and an associate director of laboratory programs. "Now we're free to hire chemists, physicists, economists -- whoever we need to carry out that part of the agency's mission."
That was an important change that deepened the scope of the institute's scientific contributions, said Vint Cerf, Google's vice president and chief Internet evangelist, who served for six years on a NIST advisory board.
"He drew different circles around different activities and that changed the whole dynamic of the organization," Mr. Cerf said.
The mission focused, too, under Mr. Gallagher's leadership.
Now, scientists must focus on research that improves measurement standards, increases innovation and improves quality of life.
At Pitt, students and faculty shouldn't expect any abrupt, sweeping changes.
First, the university is already stable and the campus is on the rise. Second, Mr. Gallagher doesn't make rash decisions.
Before the laboratory restructuring, Mr. Gallagher said, "I remember talking with senior representatives from industry, and they would tell me, 'If you're going to make a change, go quick.' They couldn't understand why I wasn't doing it that way."
Instead, he met with employees and industry stakeholders for months. "I think that style of decision-making worked. Our original proposal did get changed in the process, and in the end everyone got on board," he said.
Insight to changing economy
Colleagues and stakeholders view Mr. Gallagher as a good communicator and a visionary in a rapidly changing field.
Because of his dual roles with NIST and as acting undersecretary for commerce, he can foresee how technological changes impact the economy, they said.
Now, as leader of a university he will be able to help prepare the workforce that will create the technology to move the country forward, said David Chavern, executive vice president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a member of Pitt's Board of Trustees and a 1983 graduate in economics.
"I'm very excited about having a chancellor who has dealt with some of these issues about the changing economy, advanced manufacturing, cutting-edge technologies and how they're affecting the economy," Mr. Chavern said.
Professor emeritus John Baker, a former Faculty Assembly president, said, "I think Pitt wants to build its research in engineering and in science outside the medical school, and I suspect [Mr. Gallagher] can help with that."
Mr. Gallagher already worked closely with education leaders, particularly lately in order to fulfill an executive order directing NIST to work with academia, industry and other government agencies to develop a framework of cybersecurity practices to protect critical infrastructure. It is a guide to help companies and government agencies detect, respond to and recover from cybersecurity threats.
With fanfare, President Barack Obama released that 41-page framework on Wednesday, crediting NIST with bringing together hundreds of companies and numerous federal agencies to identify best practices and incorporate them into the framework. They were developed after a series of stakeholder meetings last year, including one at Carnegie Mellon University.
It was an achievement for Mr. Gallagher and his agency, but the job hasn't just been about celebrating successes. It's also been about responding to disasters in ways that restore confidence of employees, Congress and the public.
Opportunity from problem
Mr. Gallagher did that after a plutonium spill in Boulder, Colo., rocked the agency in 2008. He wasn't yet director of the agency but was thrust into the middle of the crisis because of his expertise working with nuclear reactors as director of the National Center for Neutron Research.
NIST employees say it couldn't have been easy to defend the agency from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's accusations of deliberate misconduct, a charge that resulted in a $10,000 fine and a one-year moratorium on nuclear research at NIST's Boulder facility.
The incident occurred when a glass vial broke, releasing plutonium powder. A researcher who came in contact with the dangerous chemical left the facility with traces on his hands, contaminating the local sewer system.
NIST employees say a lesser leader might have closed ranks. Instead, Mr. Gallagher used the incident to focus attention on the agency's safety program's shortcomings, even as members of Congress publicly questioned whether it was possible to restore public trust.
"He stepped in and got everyone to slow down and calm down. He said, 'Let's solve this problem and then we need to look at our overall safety culture,' " Mr. May remembers.
He and other colleagues admired the way Mr. Gallagher turned a serious problem into an opportunity to fundamentally change the agency's approach to safety.
Robert Dimeo, a North Hills native who heads the agency's Center of Neutron Research, said, "He could have tried to fix this behind the scenes, but Pat was upfront, open and transparent with everything. His approach to the whole thing -- as well as in the following years -- really demonstrated his wherewithal."
The incident was jarring for the agency, Mr. Gallagher remembers.
"It was one of those searing moments when you realize you really need to improve, and things you've been comfortable with need to get a lot better," he said. "What hurt the most was that at NIST what we take most seriously is a pride in our excellence. We're a precision place, and we do things right, so we took it personally when we didn't seem to get it right in that lab."
A lot was at stake.
"The consequences were high. If we didn't address that situation well, we were going to lose the public's confidence," he said. "It required deep change in the organization that went all the way down to attitude and behaviors. ... Safety is not a coat of paint; it's about the way we do our work."
It was Mr. Gallagher's response to the contamination that propelled him to the top rung of agency leadership, employees said.
"That was where he first really demonstrated to the broad NIST community his resolve, his values and his principles," Mr. Dimeo remembers.
He showed his resolve again last fall when he found himself on the defensive during a National Press Club speech on cybersecurity, but he didn't wait for the questions to come before he offered an explanation. Midway in the speech, he explained it is entirely appropriate for his agency to collaborate with the National Security Agency.
At the time, accusations of domestic spying by the NSA was top news, and NIST was being accused of deliberately weakening encryption standards for random-bit generators so it would be easier for the security agency to monitor telecommunications.
"NIST is fully committed to the highest levels of scientific and technical quality and integrity. This is our bone marrow at NIST, and that includes supporting the strongest possible encryption cybersecurity methods," he said at the Press Club.
"I am completely confident that our integrity is fully intact. It is sound. But in light of all the concerns and press, we are redoubling our efforts to look at our transparency and make sure that we operate so openly that everyone else can be as confident with our integrity and process as we are."
Mr. Gallagher is a prolific speaker who has given speeches across the country, including at the White House and, twice last year, in Pittsburgh -- first at a cybersecurity conference at Carnegie Mellon and later as Pitt's commencement speaker where he waxed nostalgic about his affinity for the Steel City, where his mother grew up and where he spent some of his childhood, met his wife and earned his doctorate in physics.
"My career has taken so many unexpected turns," he said during the speech in April. He had no plan after he earned his bachelor's degree at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan., in 1985, so he took a job waiting tables until he ended up -- serendipitously, he said -- briefly teaching.
He remembers his lone year at the head of a classroom in a Topeka, Kan., high school. as an "amazing experience," but it was a career trajectory he believed could only lead one place -- a school administrator's office -- and he didn't see himself there.
He then went to Pitt, where he earned a master's degree in physics in 1987 and a doctorate in physics in 1991.
While he thought he wanted to be a university professor, his postdoctoral research at Boston University drew the attention of Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York. He joined NIST in 1993 and was asked in 2009 by the president to lead the agency and to help inspire the kind of innovation that could bring the country out of the recession.
Now he is the Pitt board's unanimous choice for the chancellorship, which has an annual salary of $525,000, with deferred yearly "retention incentive payments" of $100,000 each, payable on July 31, 2019, if he has not voluntarily left the university or been removed for cause.
"Life doesn't often unfold in accord with some plan you have ahead of time. That's never worked for me," Mr. Gallagher said. "My position has been to learn and try to be receptive so you're ready when life gives you these amazing opportunities."
Opportunities, he said, like leading the University of Pittsburgh.
"The trick is knowing when to take them," he said.
Trustees like Mr. Chavern are glad he knew to take this one.
"This is a guy who's going to run an organization that's not only one of the largest employers in the city of Pittsburgh but also one of its largest economic drivers ... so this really matters for your average citizen in the city of Pittsburgh," Mr. Chavern said.
Michael Spring, president of Pitt's Faculty Assembly, has worked with NIST on various projects and remembers meeting Mr. Gallagher at a grant meeting before he emerged as the university's new leader.
"I recollect thinking how different he was from the four other NIST directors I have known," said Mr. Spring, associate professor of information science and telecommunications.
While all four were impressive, Mr. Spring said of Mr. Gallagher, "I noted a level of simple interaction with his scientists that was very reminiscent of the feeling I have with chancellor Nordenberg," the university's outgoing leader.
"That means a lot to me," Mr. Spring said. "He will bring the same personal and caring style that helped chancellor Nordenberg and the university make such great strides."
Nearly everyone asked to describe Mr. Gallagher first mentions his collaborative style, something associates and stakeholders say will serve him well at a research university with smart and opinionated faculty members who have strong personalities and divergent priorities.
"It' a very diverse faculty and then you've got the medical side of things, which is not where he has expertise, but I have confidence it won't be an ultimate impediment," said Tobin Smith, vice president for policy at American University, who has worked with Mr. Gallagher on issues relating to the commercialization of university research.
Any concerns about his singular career focus on the sciences are far outweighed by his policy experience, Mr. Smith said. "Having someone with that experience in Washington, who's had to deal with bureaucracy, is not a bad thing."
Mr. Chavern echoed that.
"Pitt is going to face real challenges going forward as there are constraints on state money, constraints on federal money and constraints on tuition. Revenues are going to be constrained and these will be challenging times ahead," he said.
Mr. Gallagher is used to making his case for government dollars and has done so successfully.
Managers who report to him say the agency is better off financially since he took over.
"He has a very strong appreciation for the role of science and technology in our everyday lives and the ability to communicate that. That's a characteristic that made him successful" at getting Congressional support, said Mr. Dimeo, the NIST neutron research director. "He has a rare and unique combination of understanding science at a very deep level and knowing the importance of nurturing relationships among people."
Because federal employees are prohibited from lobbying Congress, he could not approach members for funding but could only answer their questions when summoned to public hearings. During those appearances, he demonstrated how funding translated into solid research with practical application, NIST employees said.
As a university president, he will be able to -- and expected to -- lobby directly for government dollars. He said he's prepared to do that but realizes it will be tough as the state and federal shares of education costs are shrinking.
Mr. Gallagher also works closely with the Obama administration and has been a key policy adviser as a member of the National Science and Technology Council, which directs research and development strategies across multiple agencies.
NIST employees have some advice for their old boss's new employees in Pittsburgh.
"Be transparent about what your challenges are in whatever part of the organization you're in. Tell him what the opportunities are and what the risks are. He's a really quick study and he'll want to know all those things," Mr. Dimeo said.
When making a request of him, it's helpful to have data, NIST researchers said. As a scientist, Mr. Gallagher likes performance metrics and other quantitative measures, but he also has a bachelor's degree in philosophy, so he can appreciate qualitative measures as well.
And don't shy away from debate, said Mr. May, one of his closest work associates.
"I never walked on pins and needles around him. He expected me to give him counsel, and he was free to take it or leave it," Mr. May said.
Faculty and employees can expect him to keep a frenetic schedule, but one that begins and ends with what he calls "compass time," when he reviews his goals, sets his agenda and takes care of menial tasks that could otherwise be distractions later in the day.
"It's the perfect time to touch base with staff and address critical emails, because when I dive into my schedule I don't like being in an important meeting -- really wanting to be mentally there -- and having to be checking my phone and looking at my iPad," he said.
The schedule also affords him time to spend with his family, a top priority now that two of his three sons -- students at Towson University and the University of South Carolina -- are soon to enter the working world and the youngest is applying to colleges.
"The balance with my family is really important so I work hard when I'm at work, and my schedule is pretty spectacular, but when I go home I am with my family. You have to take care of yourself," he said. "I run a tightly choreographed day."
At home, he likes to bicycle, garden and cook, usually with southwest flavors he grew up with in Albuquerque. When his schedule allows, he officiates high school swim meets. And he occasionally laments that his kayak hangs in his garage, unused for years.
He first kayaked years ago through the Explorers Club of Pittsburgh, which he and his soon-to-be wife joined when he was a graduate student and she was working in private practice as an occupational therapist.
Like going back home
NIST's 3,000 employees learned of Mr. Gallagher' impending departure in an email message he sent at noon Feb. 8, just after the university vote.
"The position was one of those rare, unique opportunities that doesn't come around very often -- and certainly not when you expect them," Mr. Gallagher told them.
He said it feels "nearly impossible" to imagine not working at NIST. "You are all such a large part of my life, and this amazing institute has shaped me in so many ways. This is not going to be easy," he wrote. "We have accomplished so much together."
Neighbors were surprised last Sunday to learn that the well-liked physicist and bureaucrat next door will be leaving Brookeville, Md., for academic life at Pitt.
Word of his appointment hadn't yet trickled out to James Creek Court, a wooded cul-de-sac lined with not-quite-million-dollar homes inhabited by physicians, scientists and college professors.
Neighbor Tom Fearon said he's watched the Gallaghers' boys play basketball, tended to the family's goldfish when they'd go on beach vacations, hosted the couple at holiday parties and banded with them to battle stink-bug invasions.
He knew Mr. Gallagher as a neighbor -- the man he'd see tending his vegetable garden, repairing his deck and waving from across the grassy patch that separates their driveways.
For Mr. Gallagher, his time here will soon end, but his wife Karen has said she will remain another year so their youngest son Ryan can finish high school in Maryland, where he is a competitive swimmer.
Although Mr. Gallagher grew up in Albuquerque, in some ways his move to Pitt is like going back home. In addition to his graduate studies at the university, he spent portions of his childhood in Pittsburgh.
Both his parents have Pennsylvania roots. His mother was born in Sunbury and moved to Pittsburgh when she was about 10. His father was born in Ireland but came to Philadelphia as a toddler. The pair wound up in Albuquerque, where they met and began dating, but they returned to Pennsylvania to get married at St. Basil Church in Carrick.
Mr. Gallagher would visit family in Pennsylvania at least once a year, sometimes for extended stays, such as during second grade when his parents traveled to Maryland so his father could have cardiac surgery. He was sent to the home of his grandparents, who enrolled him for a few weeks in St. Basil School, his mother's alma mater.
"Pittsburgh has given me so much over my entire life," Mr. Gallagher said. "It feels really good coming back in a capacity where I can give something back."
Staff writer Bill Schackner contributed. Washington Bureau Chief Tracie Mauriello: firstname.lastname@example.org, 703-996-9292 or on Twitter @pgPoliTweets.