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Barton, Thomas J.

Published onJul 30, 2021
Barton, Thomas J.

(1940- )

Quick Facts

Barton directed Iowa State’s Institute for Physical Research and Technology (IPRT) from 1998 to 2007, a consortium of 11 science and technology research centers, of which the Ames Laboratory is the first and largest.



Thomas J. Barton, Iowa State University distinguished professor emeritus of chemistry (organosilicon chemistry) was born and raised in Texas. Barton has said that it was purely an accident that he was a chemist. He started college on a music scholarship – half voice and half clarinet – and was asked to pick a science class to meet his degree requirements. When a college official tried to steer him away from a chemistry class for science students, Barton rose to the challenge and took the harder course. “The next thing you know I had a PhD in chemistry,” he said.

He received his PhD in organic chemistry at the University of Florida in 1967 and worked as a National Institutes of Health postdoctoral fellow at Ohio State before joining the Iowa State faculty in chemistry that same year.

In 1981 he was appointed to the editorial board of the new American Chemical Society journal Organometallics. Barton received the Kipping Award in organosilicon chemistry in 1982; in 1983 he was honored to be the second recipient of the Iowa Governor's Science Teaching Medal; in 1984 he was named a distinguished professor.

In 1988 he became Director of the Ames Laboratory, serving until 2007. Iowa State operates the Laboratory for the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). The laboratory conducts research into areas of national concern, including energy resources, high-speed computer design, environmental cleanup and restoration and the synthesis and study of new materials. It’s technology transfer program allows companies to collaborate with the lab, from contract research to licensing of patents. At the time of Barton’s appointment, the laboratory had a workforce of ~500 employees, more than half of whom were scientists and engineers.

In 1989 he received the “Outstanding Scientific Accomplishment in Materials Chemistry” in the DOE’s Materials Sciences Research Competition. He was the recipient of the American Chemical Society's 1995 Midwest Award for notable achievements in chemistry in the Midwest region and in 2003 he was awarded the Federal Laboratory Consortium’s “Laboratory Director of the Year for Technology Transfer.” The FLC is a national network of more than 700 federal laboratories and centers and their parent departments and agencies whose focus is moving federal laboratory research and technology into the mainstream of the U.S. economy.

The Laboratory Director of the Year award recognizes exceptional contributions supporting technology transfer activities at their laboratory. "…this organization represents the best in efforts to help federal laboratories such as the Ames Laboratory strengthen ties with industry," said Barton. "These ties are essential if we are to help build Iowa's and our nation's economy."

Iowa State University President Gregory Geoffroy said, “Barton has worked tirelessly…to make sure that Ames Lab is accessible to industry. His efforts have helped make the laboratory a rich resource for Iowa business and industry, helping to generate economic growth for the state."

In 1999, Barton was elected a member of the National Advisors Group for the FLC. This panel of senior agency officials, laboratory administrators and industry leaders guides the FLC in pursuing its technology-transfer goals.

In addition to his duties as director of Ames Laboratory, Barton directed Iowa State’s Institute for Physical Research and Technology (IPRT) from 1998 to 2007, a consortium of 11 science and technology research centers, of which the Ames Laboratory is the first and largest. In addition to performing world-class scientific research, IPRT provides technical assistance to Iowa companies.

Barton oversaw the rapid growth of IPRT, adding four centers - the Midwest Forensics Resource Center, Center for Catalysis, Center for Building Energy Research, and Catron Center for Solar Energy Research. The IPRT Company Assistance program he created provided technical and other assistance to more than 500 Iowa companies over a span of five years. ISU President Geoffroy stated that, “It’s hard to think about any leader who's been more committed to what we all value, which is true excellence, doing the right thing, focusing on recruiting and retaining great faculty members, pushing innovative research programs and collaborating broadly within the institution.”

Barton served as interim director of the Iowa Energy Center (IEC) in 2009. He was cited as having "…made many connections across the state that will help him work with state leaders to address Iowa's energy issues."

"I've had a lifetime interest in renewable energy," Barton stated, noting he's put solar panels on his home, has installed a geothermal heating and cooling system and drives a hybrid car. "I strongly believe in the center's mission to increase Iowa's energy efficiency and use of renewable energy, to model state efforts to decrease dependence on imported fuels, and sponsor energy-related research, education and demonstration projects.”

The IEC was created by the Iowa General Assembly and signed into law by Gov. Terry Branstad in 1990. The IEC is administered by Iowa State University and also manages the state’s Alternate Energy Revolving Loan Program.

Professor Barton was a National Academy of Sciences exchange scientist in the Soviet Union, a NATO exchange scientist in France, a Japan Society for the Promotion of Science lecturer in Japan, and a professeur d'echange at the University de Montpellier.

On Feb. 28, 2007, Barton resigned his posts with Ames Laboratory and IPRT and returned to ISU's chemistry faculty.

In announcing his resignation, Barton pointed to successes that led to the timing of his decision. "The contract for the Ames Laboratory is now signed; the scientific programs are in excellent shape; the budget has been stable for several years; our safety culture is firmly embedded; and we have superb people in every single key position in the Lab,"

Barton oversaw the successful signing of a new $150 million, five-year contract for the operation of the Ames Laboratory by Iowa State University. In the years since taking the directorship in 1988, he oversaw the growth of the annual budget from $17 million to ~$30 million in 2006. Throughout his tenure, Barton lobbied for the expansion of DOE funding for fundamental and applied research, with a later emphasis on funding for bio-related initiatives.

Barton said, "On the IPRT side, we have the finest leadership one can imagine for each of the centers and all programs are healthy and pursuing their respective missions with vigor. It is thus an excellent time for me to step down from the directorships of Ames Lab and IPRT and return to the teaching of chemistry and working with students, which attracted me to Ames some 40 years ago."

Barton retired from Iowa State in May 2012.

In 2014, Barton took on the role of president of the American Chemical Society (ACS), the world’s largest scientific society with more than 164,000 members. He served an additional two years as president -elect and past-president.

The ACS had developed plans and strategies to address the issues of outsourced jobs, lack of employment for chemists, uncertain research funding and fewer young people interested in the field.

In support of his candidacy, Barton wrote that, “…plans remain only words unless there is leadership who passionately believes in the mission and has the background, talents, capabilities and time available… to carry out these strategies… and to energize the membership of ACS to carry them out with zeal.” Barton’s priorities were improving elementary and secondary science education in America, boosting the public’s appreciation of chemistry and addressing employment and globalization issues.

At this writing in 2017, Barton serves on a few ACS committees, but pursues an active retirement, immersed in satisfying new curiosities.

Selected Sources

Information from websites for Iowa State University Department of Chemistry and U.S. Department of Energy/Ames Laboratory; articles from ISU News Service; edited by Katherine Svec.

Thomas J. Barton Papers, RS 17/01/13, University Archives, Iowa State University Library.

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