24 January 2013

Donald Hornig: 1920-2013

Donald Hornig, science advisor to Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, passed away on January 21, 2013 at the age of 92.  The Washington Post has an obituary here.

In 2005 Dr. Hornig participated in our science advisors series (pictured above during his visit), and was pretty sharp for 85 (or 45 for that matter!). Here is the transcript from his 2005 lecture at the University of Colorado (a video of his talk is here, and a transcript and recording of my interview of him, can be found here):
I will confine myself to my own experience with Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson. Before I proceed, I should remind you that I'm a Neanderthal, with a fading memory, but a lively imagination.

My experience relates to a time before many of you were born. On the other hand, although the actors have changed and the times have changed, a surprising number of problems look very much the same.

What are the problems? Some of the discussions and much of the analysis concerns the management of the enormous collection of programs carried on by the federal agencies or funded by the federal government.
Each has its own body of scientists, its particular management organization and traditions, and its particular problems. I don't know if you'll all agree with me, but I don't think there can be a single science policy when it encompasses this whole spectrum. So, I won't attempt to discuss one.

Still, despite all its diversity, the ship of state needs to be led, and steering it is ultimately the job of the President. The ultimate goal for us has to be to assist him in all matters which require scientific and technical judgments. This shows up in the appointment letters of most, if not all, of the Science Advisors -- I haven't checked this out, I have to say -- but where the key phrase is, "to advise and assist the President in all matters affected by or pertaining to science and technology." I know that's true in several, and is also incorporated in the 1976 Act which establishes the office at a much later date.

Now, the military have faced the problems of utilizing new inventions, for example, the machine gun, throughout history. It was World Word II that saw the introduction of weapons such a radar and sonar, which utilized new science to deal with strategic problems, such as the submarine war or the air assault on England.

Universities got seriously involved, probably for the first time in that sort of thing, starting in 1940. The White House itself only got involved when the possibility of developing an atomic bomb was brought to the attention of President Franklin Roosevelt in 1941. Now, I'm not entirely exactly sure of that date, plus or minus one year. But, the resulting program, the Manhattan Project, was subsequently pursued, again, within the framework of the Armed Forces and didn't involve the kind of organization we're talking about now -- civilian organizations.

The kind of discussion we are now having started in 1957 when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik. I had previously participated in various government advisory committees, such as one on the application of infrared radiation to warfare, which taught me about the problems in dealing with very high-ranking military officers. That isn't always a good experience -- but, anyway. In any case, Sputnik was a very different matter.

Against the background of an on-going Cold War, the launch of a long-range rocket capable of carrying nuclear weapons produced a major public shock. Not only because of its military implications, because it stimulated public concerns and public discussion of the whole state of American science. Our relative technological capabilities, the quality and nature of American higher education, and so on. I mean, really a very fundamental national self-examination.
What quickly emerged was that except for the military, the President had no one he trusted to turn to. President Eisenhower understood the importance -- as a general -- of a reliable and loyal staff to back him up. But in the government, there were economists, lawyers, businessmen with a variety of backgrounds, and so on. But no one equipped to think about this new range of critical problems.

President Eisenhower's response was to create the post of Special Assistant to the President for Science and Technology, to which he named James Killian, then president of MIT.

A little later, the President's Science Advisory Committee (PSAC), which has already been mentioned, appointed by the President -- and this is unique, because it doesn't happen now -- and reporting directly to the President was established. Neither one of them, though, had any statutory authority.
PSAC consisted of distinguished scientists, some academic and some with industrial backgrounds, but all with dealings and broad experience in dealing with large public problems, mostly acquired, incidentally, in World War II. We haven't any similar training ground now for public servants.

You'll recognize that although the scale, the application, the sophistication and variety of problems have grown enormously, this problem remains. The President's advisors, mainly, are non-scientists.

Whether the White House needs its own science and technology apparatus and what its role should be or could be, has been debated ever since. And I imagine we will discuss this and related matters in our sessions here in the next day or two.

I've already indicated that I don't think we need a science oversight or management staff. We have an OMB and the various agencies also can do that.

We need a source of wisdom, experience and perspective drawn from the entire world-wide scientific and technical community. We should ask how we can help the President to lead in the midst of an on-going transformation which is, in historical times, proceeding with breathless speed.

Think of it. Petroleum-powered transport began during my grandparents' lives. The first airplane flew when my parents were children. Commercial radio could first be heard when I was a child. I remember my father bringing home an acid battery-powered radio in 1924 to listen, miraculously, to voting reports on the presidential election. Sulfa drugs were introduced in the `30s, followed shortly by penicillin. Technical advance helped turn the tide in World War II, and the atom bomb ended the war.

Since then, the process of scientific discovery and ideological -- huh, ideological -- technological advances has not only continued, but has been speeding up. In many ways, it has become the central initiator of large-scale changes in the economy, in the structure of society, and in many facets of our culture, even. It is even a political force.

Although I have participated in a variety of government advisory committees, my direct experience with events at the level of our considerations here started in 1958, when I was named to the newly-created Space Sciences Board for the National Academy of Sciences, which Lloyd Berkner was chairman.
Its mission was to help design a program for the NASA, which had just been started and didn't have a staff. Well, we worked at it.

In 1959, I first met President Eisenhower. He asked me to serve on the Science Advisory Committee, and in January of 1960, I was formally appointed. Peace at that time focused on military intelligence and arms control problems, nuclear test ban and nuclear energy. It also devoted itself to a major effort to stimulate education in the sciences. And that's important. That was conceived from the beginning. It was a critical role for the presidency.

President Kennedy continued my term on PSAC. He was an interested president, and a good listener, and a great support to Jerry Weisner, who was then the Science Advisor. But, it is chastening to realize, when one tries to make stories that say how great all the Science Advisors were, that he consulted neither PSAC nor his Science Advisor in arriving at his decision to go to the moon, which may have been the biggest decision of the time.

My subsequent contact with him was as Chairman of the PSAC Booster Panel and Space Science Panel, to be invited to accompany him on a trip to visit nuclear and space installations in Colorado and New Mexico. Maybe -- I say maybe -- our conversations on Air Force One led to his asking me to become his Special Assistant, but I haven't the faintest idea.

People always ask, "Well, why?" I don't know.

At any rate, he was assassinated shortly thereafter, so I was in no-man's land until in January, Lyndon Johnson asked me if I would stay on. On January 24th, he formally appointed me as Special Assistant, and on the same day, sent up my nomination for a completely separate job -- and one could have a discussion about that complication -- Director of the Office of Science and Technology. And he sent it to the Senate and, in what must be record time, I was confirmed on January 26th; two days later.
My agenda quickly broadened beyond national security problems. In 1964, when task forces were being organized to provide the new president with initiatives he might undertake, Rachel Carson had just written her highly-acclaimed book, Silent Spring, which some of you may have read. And, I sent a memo to Bill Moyers that pollution and the problems with the environment were going to be one of the big political issues of our time and that it was important for that administration -- or our administration I would say -- to take the lead. He liked the idea, as did the President.

That summer, we set up a task force chaired by John Tooke of Princeton to develop it. And then the report, "Restoring the Quality of the Environment", was issued by the President, who wrote a foreword to it.

In the next five years, we tackled many issues, mostly dictated by my sense of what mattered to the President at any given time or trying to anticipate for him what was going to matter. This led to efforts in such areas as developing the potential of the oceans, coping with the world food problem, dealing with urban problems, and very importantly, meeting the need for basic research and advanced research in science and technology.

Another activity of the office then was to provide support to the scientific and technical leadership in the various government departments, many of whom had seen the same problems of communicating with their own colleagues and bosses that we did in the White House. You know, talking to guys who didn't know a thing about science. I hope, though, you'll appreciate the wondrous powers of small nudges from the White House. It helped smooth lots of things.
We were also important channels of communication between the agencies and relevant offices and officers of the BOB, Bureau of the Budget then. It's now OMB, the Office of Management and Budget.

Well, I could go on and chat about numerous examples, but I will leave that to questions and personal discussions.

Lastly, I would mention that science is a wonderful lubricant for foreign policy initiatives. It is relatively apolitical and, by and large, everyone loves science. That may not be as true anymore as it used to be.

I first realized that when, in 1964, Rudnyov, whose first name I can't remember, a Deputy Premier of the USSR, invited me to come to the Soviet Union as the first half of an exchange, of which he would be the return visitor. We sensed the vested interest in that. I thought it would be a good idea to accept, and the President concurred.

Immediately after he won the 1964 election, I made the trip in one of the President's airplanes, a 707, accompanied by a distinguished group of industrial scientists. Piore was a vice president of IBM, Hershey was a vice president of DuPont, Fisk was president of Bell Labs, and Holloman was the Assistant Secretary of Commerce. And that made the Russians take us seriously.

The outcome was to raise real questions as to whether our policy of trying to inhibit the flow of industrial technology to the Soviet Union was productive or might even be self-defeating. I can't give you an answer.

The visit was, I believe, the first time that it really became clear to the President that science and technology had a role to play in the conduct of science of foreign affairs. Something similar happened in the spring of 1965, when President Park Chung-Hee of Korea met President Johnson in Washington.

The day before his meeting with Park, the President called me on the phone saying that the stuff he had from State (that's capitalized, the State Department) was a lot of crap and he wanted something creative. PSAC fortunately was meeting that day, so we closed down our agenda and discussed various possibilities, homing in on the idea of an industrial research laboratory.

After PSAC adjourned, a rump group, including Frank Long of Cornell and Ken Pitzer, then president of Rice, and I, worked on a plan for what we called the Institute for Applied Research and Industrial Development, which I presented to President Johnson approximately one -- this shows how well the government's organized -- approximately one hour before President Park arrived the next morning.

President Johnson liked it. President Park was completely surprised because he thought you had to be notified in advance of these things, but he was pleased. At the end of the meeting, President Johnson had agreed, without consulting with me, to send me, backed by a distinguished delegation -- whatever that might mean -- to Korea, to see whether the idea could be implemented.

Well, the program was enormously successful. Now, 40 years later, KIST, K-I-S-T, the Korean Institute for Science and Technology, is thriving, has been a model for at least one aspect of development in several countries. It also has a whole string of off- shoots in Korea.

Well, these outcomes obviously gave the President ideas. The next summer, when President -- when Prime Minister Sabo of Japan was visiting, the President called me at home when I was at dinner at home -- while I was in the kitchen, sort of second- guessing Lilli at the stove -- the night before their meeting to say he wanted a fresh idea. You know, on demand.

This time, I proposed a U.S.-Japan medical cooperation program for Southeast Asia. Medical cooperation is always safe. And worked all night on it, consulting medical experts all over the country by telephone. The Japan-U.S. medical program went through and has been implemented. It is going strong right now. It's a good one.

This led to visits to Pakistan, India, Taiwan, Australia, many other places -- but, what I haven't talked about is Vietnam. We were not directly involved in the conduct of that war, but panels of PSAC continued to work on military questions. In fact, over half of the efforts of the Science Office throughout that period were devoted to defense, intelligence and space. That's as opposed to, perhaps 90% in the period -- the earlier period. My staff had about 35 professionals, and they worked closely with the Office of Management and Budget -- although it was still called BOB then -- on evaluating programs and budgets.

However, from 1967 to 1969 -- I got my text mixed up here, but it doesn't matter -- we went on working, but there was a continuing erosion of confidence in the loyalty of our office and PSAC through the President's goals, particularly the plans for an ABM -- the anti-ballistic missile -- and for super sonic transport. And once that came up, there was a gradual erosion in everything else we did.

The fact is there was never a conflict -- that's been discussed much in various places overtly, but there was a cooling off. You know, who works for you and who are your friends? That contributed to a total breakdown under my successor under President Nixon, leaving the reconsideration of the role of the Science Advisor and the Office of Science and Technology, which is the subject, I believe, of much of the meeting we're holding now. And with that, I thank you.