New Science Office Deputy Relishes Policy Debates

WASHINGTON—Thomas Rona, confirmed in late November as associate director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, is described in a press release as an electrical engineer with a Sc.D. from MIT. But it is ideas, not objects, that excite him. During a long career at Boeing Aerospace Rona was an anomaly, a self-proclaimed “exotic brain” whose job was to hunt for long range opportunities outside the defense contractor’s normal product line. That search

Jan 25, 1988
Jeffrey Mervis
WASHINGTON—Thomas Rona, confirmed in late November as associate director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, is described in a press release as an electrical engineer with a Sc.D. from MIT. But it is ideas, not objects, that excite him.

During a long career at Boeing Aerospace Rona was an anomaly, a self-proclaimed “exotic brain” whose job was to hunt for long range opportunities outside the defense contractor’s normal product line. That search stimulated his thinking on broader policy issues, leading to a book, Our Changing Geopolitical Premises, which offered a sweeping analysis of the ills of western society and a four-point prescription for renewed military and political strength. In 1984 he joined the Defense Department to work on intelligence and space policy issues, and in December 1986 he was loaned to OSTP.

The tone of the office, of course, is set by his boss, presidential science adviser William Graham, whom Rona first met when both worked on the Reagan transition team after the 1980 election. But Rona, who shares Graham’s conservative views on strategic and military matters, has seemingly been given some latitude in reaching out to the scientific community.

“He strikes you as an academic scientist, someone open to debate and discussion.” said an official of a major defense contractor who has met with Rona as part of a delegation from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). “If he [Rona] has a particular ideolology. I’m not aware of it.

"He approached us about providing technical input on a specific problem in the civilian space program, and he was very open,” added the official, who requested anonymity. “His boss has never reached out to us, I can tell you that.”

Despite that dialogue, none of the top OSTP officials are scheduled to speak next month in Boston at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, traditionally a showcase for science policy debate. Rona said during an interview last month that he “hoped to participate,” calling the meeting a “good forum to measure the temper of the scientific community,” but added that his schedule did not permit him to attend as many meetings as he would like.

Educated as an engineer in occupied France during World War IT, Rona eventually moved to Canada and completed his studies in 1955 at MIT. Like most of his colleagues, Rona and his MIT stu- dents were involved in defense-related work. He would welcome a return to that era, when such work was embraced by academics.

“Doing military research was considered to be good for the country, good for the university, and good for the researcher,” Rona said during an interview last month in his office. “The idea that students would object to such work was unheard of.”

In 1959 a Boeing aerospace recruiter offered to triple his salary without altering his research (he was running the applied physics lab at the time), and he remained with the company for 25 years. Although Rona did not work on military contracts at Boeing—”I didn’t know how to design a missile and they said fine, they wanted to broaden the intellectual basis of their R&D effort”—he became involved in strategic planning, intelligence and communications.

His work led him to believe that President Carter “was deliberately weakening our military strength” around the world. His 1982 book was an attempt to offer an alternative.

The book stresses the importance of “social cohesion and stability” within western democracies, a contract between the individual and his government that nearly dissolved during the l960s and 1970s.

Rona believes that the Reagan administration has reversed this trend and rebuilt ties with the average citizen.

"This adminstration recognized that leadership is a mental attitude,” he said. “You need to stand tall, be fair, help those who are smart and capable, and offer rewards according to one’s talents and the risks taken.”

Rona said his position at OSTP allows him to continue his work in helping to order the nation’s R&D agenda and finding the right people to manage it. But he has had “great difficulty in finding people [outside of OSTP] with the proper historical perspective and an acquaintance with many disciplines.” And he cautioned scientists entering the policy arena to limit their actions to areas in which they are knowledgeable.

“I think there’s an arrogance in the field that, leads people to say, ‘I’m good in nuclear physics, therefore I must also be good in public policy debates,’ “ Rona said. “That doesn’t hold, and it’s important that scientists understand that.”

Mervis is on the staff of THE SCIENTIST.


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(The Scientist, Vol:2, #2, p.5, January 25, 1988)
(Copyright © The Scientist, Inc.)

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