NBAF UPDATE | A well-oiled and high-tech machine | Opinion

Ever wondered why it’s taking so long to build the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility? Consider this: NBAF is more than just a highly secure laboratory building. It’s a 48-acre, $1.25 billion complex for large animal agricultural research, training and diagnostics with 700,000 square feet of facility space filled with a high-tech, ultramodern collection of machines and equipment. That requires careful planning and purposeful construction.

Officially in the making since 2004, NBAF will provide safe, secure and state-of-the-art biocontainment labs. With modern operational features, NBAF’s advantages over the aging Plum Island Animal Disease Center, or PIADC, will allow U.S. Department of Agriculture scientists to safely continue and expand their disease-fighting work.

While personal protective equipment and detailed policies and procedures are important pillars for risk management, the third leg in NBAF’s figurative three-legged stool, is the facility itself. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate, or DHS S&T, is building NBAF to standards that fulfill USDA’s science needs. The facility also has been designed and constructed to ensure all critical systems have backups and that its laboratories can maintain containment in the event of severe weather. That requires extensive operations oversight.

Patrick Moylan, NBAF operations director for USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, recently moved to Manhattan after 16 years serving a similar role at PIADC. In an extremely simplified analogy, he compared the modern automation at NBAF to PIADC’s manual process using coffee makers.

“Plum Island would be like using a percolator on a campfire to make coffee; it may make a great cup, but it is more of a manual process,” Moylan said. “NBAF is more like the espresso machine that makes three different kinds of coffee, brews before you’re even out of bed and turns off automatically.”

Moylan has 30 years of experience in operations for large research facilities and started his professional career with the Naval Nuclear Power Program. Fitting because Tim Barr, NBAF program manager for DHS, frequently mentions how NBAF’s biocontainment areas are designed to a standard similar to what the nuclear industry uses for structural and containment integrity.

As the operations director, Moylan will oversee NBAF’s safety, occupational health, industrial hygiene, environmental compliance, training and document archives unit, and lab support services. Though these units are broad, Moylan’s goals for the position are simple. He wants to enable USDA’s science mission by providing reliable infrastructure and services; protecting people, property and the environment; being a trusted and valued community stakeholder; and executing sound business and management practices.

These goals fit nicely with NBAF’s initiative to be a high-reliability organization, or HRO, another principle taken from the nuclear industry. HROs are organizations that have high risk potential but a strong safety culture and an emphasis on planning to prevent system failures.

While the facility itself has advanced technology and safety features, people still operate it. As part of the process of becoming an HRO, every NBAF employee is encouraged to look for areas where there could be failure and determine how best to mitigate. NBAF leadership, including Moylan, are already empowering employees to stop work and address possible safety concerns before they become an issue.

“It takes a lot of preparation — writing standard operating procedures, developing policies and setting up a safety culture early — that goes hand-in-hand with the HRO,” Moylan said. “That’s really the focus right now as USDA prepares to take ownership of the facility when construction is complete.”

We look forward to welcoming more colleagues like Moylan to the Manhattan area. According to our latest employee survey, 21 percent of NBAF employees — about 45 people, many with their families — say they have moved to Kansas for their current position. Since the science hasn’t moved yet, that’s just operations and leadership positions.

For those interested in helping run a high-tech, well-oiled machine that also happens to be a top-tier federal science facility to protect our nation’s agriculture, we still have a few more operations positions to hire. Those positions will be posted on and are regularly shared on our @USDA_NBAF Twitter and usda-nbaf LinkedIn accounts.

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