Arthur M. Bueche Award

2014 Arthur M. Bueche Award Acceptance Remarks

National Academy of Engineering
Arthur M. Bueche Award
Siegfried S. Hecker, September 28, 2014


President Mote, distinguished guests, I am deeply honored by receiving the National Academy of Engineering’s Arthur M. Bueche Award. This award ceremony provides an opportunity to pay tribute to the contributions Arthur Bueche made to the nation and the world. He was a world-renowned chemist who helped pioneer engineered plastics at General Electric Research and led one of the most innovative industrial research centers in the world. He was also an astute student of science and technology policy and one of our country’s most effective advisors. I will briefly focus on two contributions that overlapped with my interests.

Bueche was an eloquent and effective spokesman on issues of technology development, R&D policy and energy policy. He viewed this as part of his responsibility as a corporate officer. His focus was often on what he called the “R&D Triangle,” the interaction of academia, government and business that fueled most of America’s research. I found it interesting to go back and read some of his papers and speeches. As early as 1972, he laid out recommendations for a nation’s science policy designed to bolster the “sagging technological efficiency of the U.S.” to have universities, industry, independent laboratories, and government – “Each do what he does best”.

In addition to concerns about the “sagging” economy, this was also a time of environmental awakening and general public disillusionment with science and technology. Concerns focused on the unforeseeable social consequences of scientific discoveries and technical innovations. Bueche defended the benefits of science and technology – and he believed in the democratic process. More than 40 years ago he stated, “Viewed in perspective, technology has been remarkably sensitive to the mood of the public. And as these moods, desires, wants, needs of the majority change, the direction of technology will continue to change accordingly. In short, I believe technology tends to strive toward what most people want at any given time. And its record of success, when it has been broadly supported, is truly amazing.” I find those comments enormously insightful – and time has proven him right.

I became director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory in January 1986. The U.S. again experienced anxiety over losing its technological edge – the conventional wisdom at the time was that the Japanese were “eating our lunch” technologically and industrially. Much like Arthur Bueche, I had to understand the R&D triangle – particularly, how the labs like Los Alamos fit into the nation’s R&D enterprise in a dramatically changed world. And, that world has continued to change. The National Academies revisited the nation’s technological competitiveness in its landmark 2005 study “Rising Above the Gathering Storm.”

The second overlap with Arthur Bueche is the importance of international cooperation. In 1977, Bueche participated in the World Technology Congress in Moscow. His colleague traveler, and 2006 Bueche Award laureate, Chauncy Starr, recalled that Bueche stressed the “importance of international bonding that technology provides.” I have devoted much of my career promoting cooperation for international security.

I began the Los Alamos directorship during the Reagan defense buildup to counter what he called the “evil empire.” But, on Dec. 25, 1991, the Soviet Union was dissolved. It was as remarkable as it was unexpected. It was the first time in history that a country with the capacity to destroy the world was thrust into chaos: its central police authority collapsing almost overnight, the institutions that regulated the daily lives of Soviet people crumbling, its economy in free-fall, and its people in turmoil. These conditions were particularly dangerous in its nuclear complex with its arsenal of tens of thousands of nuclear weapons, its million-plus kilograms of fissile materials, or bomb fuel, and a million people who worked in its closely linked military and civilian nuclear complex.

During the Gorbachev era, some Russian nuclear weapons scientists reached out to us to explore cooperation. However, the mood in Washington after decades of Cold War favored collecting a peace dividend, not aiding the adversary. Few believed that a weak Russia with a disintegrating, poorly protected nuclear complex was a greater threat than a stronger, more stable Russia. But President George H.W. Bush and Senators Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar were concerned about loose nukes and about the potential of brain drain from the Russian nuclear weapons complex to countries such as Iraq, Iran and North Korea. They opened the door for cooperation.

Within two months of the Soviet collapse, John Nuckolls, director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and I were inside the Russian Los Alamos. That visit led to what we called lab-to-lab cooperation to deal with the new nuclear threats. Over the next 22 years, many hundreds of scientists and engineers from the American nuclear weapons laboratories and the Russian weapons institutes collaborated to keep nuclear weapons safe and secure, to secure and safeguard the million-plus kilograms of highly enriched uranium and plutonium, and to collaborate on scientific and technical problems to provide financial assistance and peaceful employment for thousands of Russia’s nuclear weapons scientists and engineers.

I am currently working on a book with two of my Russian counterparts about how Russian and American nuclear scientists joined forces at the end of the Cold War to help deal with nuclear risks in Russia and other states of the former Soviet Union. We try to capture the experience of our scientists and engineers, as well as chronicle the progress I have witnessed during my 49 trips to Russia. The bottom line is that 22 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, nothing really terrible has happened in the Russian nuclear complex – contrary to the expectations of most people in the West. Critical to the success of our cooperation was what Bueche called the “international bonding” that technology provides.

We found the Russian weapon scientists and engineers to be world class. The high level of the technical discussions led to instant respect – and with respect it was easier to develop trust. Trust led to personal relationships, without which we could have never tackled the sensitive nuclear issues at hand.

As my colleagues and I are approaching the finish line for the book, we find the relationships between our governments worse than at any time since the Gorbachev era. Quite frankly, it makes no sense to rekindle the adversarial relations of the past, but these are complex issues. In comparing notes on the crisis in Ukraine during a recent visit to Russia, I found our views to differ dramatically.  I was surprised that without exception every one of my Russian colleagues, nuclear scientists who in some cases I have known for 25 years, defended Moscow’s actions and criticized Washington and the West over Ukraine. Over after-dinner vodka, we agreed that we cannot reconcile our views of what is happening in Ukraine, so we returned to problems that require our continued attention, namely how to prevent nuclear proliferation and guard against nuclear terrorism. We agreed that although we have made a lot of progress working together over the past 20-plus years, that our work was not done.

Indeed, the need for scientists and engineers to cooperate internationally is more important than ever. It is especially important in all things nuclear. Since nuclear energy can electrify the world or destroy the world, the consequences of doing things right or doing them wrong are enormous. What we have learned over the years is that nuclear cooperation is essential – it promotes the benefits of nuclear energy – be it electricity, nuclear medicine or research. Nuclear isolation breeds suspicion and conflict.

It is in that spirit that I have visited the nuclear facilities and developed relationships with key scientists and engineers in the UK, France, China, India, North and South Korea, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan – and held substantive discussions with nuclear specialists from Pakistan and Iran. Dialogue and cooperation are essential. The same holds true for other major societal issues such as energy, climate change, water and natural resources, infectious diseases, the future of the Internet, etc. – these challenges are truly international and solutions are often prevented by political and ideological differences – that is why institutions like the NAE and the National Academies are crucial.

Let me conclude by saying that if being honored with the Bueche Award has helped to keep alive his memory and stress the importance of science and engineering in international matters, then I feel content. But whatever I have accomplished was made possible only through my colleagues at Los Alamos and, now, at Stanford. And, most of all, it was made possible by my family. I want to thank my four daughters, their families, and, most of all, my wife, Nina, for having supported and encouraged me – and having put up with me. She claims that there is a bright side to the 100 or so international trips I have taken – that is, next year, when we celebrate our 50th wedding anniversary it will feel much more like 25 since I have been gone for half of our married life. 

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