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Dr. Robert W. Conn
2023 Simon Ramo Founders Award Winner
Thank you very much, John. And good morning, everyone.
I must tell you that when John called me about the Founders Award about three months ago, it really just took my breath away – one person a year since 1966, and the very first awardee? Vannevar Bush. Yes, that Bush, President Roosevelt’s wartime science advisor and author of the famous report, “Science, the Endless Frontier.” That’s called “setting the bar high.” I literally shook in my chair, and frankly, tears came to my eyes.
It's also hard to describe what it feels like to have this award come from you, my peers. After all, it’s you, my fellow NAE members, choosing me for this rare and prestigious award. I still say to myself, “You’ve got to be kidding!”
I am, of course, truly honored, and so very appreciative.
Engineering is purpose driven. It is about discovering things, designing things, building things, and solving problems. It’s about having inspiring insights and providing leadership, all with the aim of creating a better future.
Engineering is also about service and giving back, often through service on national committees to help the country develop and implement the best possible policies in the areas of science, engineering, medicine, our educational enterprise, and our national defense.
Many of you are newly elected this year – my hearty congratulations.
And I say to you, our country’s finest engineers, the country needs you. I urge you to consider providing the nation with your insights on the policy front when the opportunity arises. You now have the imprimatur to make your voice heard.
As for me, I would not be standing here were it not for all the colleagues with whom I’ve worked over five decades at three academic institutions, in business and venture capital, and in the world of philanthropy.
My first working decade was spent at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where, with many of my colleagues, we established the then new field of fusion engineering. That was the 1970s.
And one colleague was my closest partner, Jerry Kulcinski. Jerry is an Academy member, an extraordinary person, and he and I were perfectly complementary in skills and knowledge. That’s what allowed us to create this new field.
My years at UCLA, through the 1980s, were when I first really got involved in institution building and in national policy issues.
It was also a decade of entrepreneurship. Together with my graduate student, Greg Campbell (another partnership), we founded in 1986 what became a successful semiconductor equipment company.
What a ride that was! I learned a great deal about “engineering” a successful business and about industry, finances, leadership, and partnerships.
At UC San Diego beginning in 1994, I was given the opportunity by the chancellor, Dick Atkinson, to transform and grow a school of engineering. Over a decade, it did grow — in size, quality, reputation, and rankings, and we ensured its future by working with philanthropists and industry on major gifts and partnerships.
One example with national implications was working with the Whitaker Foundation in the mid-1990s to convince them that what was needed by the country, not just by UC San Diego, was support for bioengineering infrastructure — the newly emerging departments of bioengineering needed new buildings.
They agreed to provide $20 million grants per awardee to construct bioengineering buildings, and along with Penn, we were the first awardees. But with that, we helped ensure bioengineering’s future across the country.
Another set of gifts from Irwin and Joan Jacobs, as the poet said, made all the difference. Together with them, we transformed the school. And today, the Jacobs School has the largest endowment of any public engineering school in the country.
Irwin is another NAE member, and was the co-founder, CEO, and board chair of Qualcomm. He and his wife Joan’s extraordinary endowment gifts, and the annual payout therefrom, were key to helping the Jacobs School attract great faculty and students while inspiring others to give. All this allowed the Jacobs School to grow along every axis.
I guess there’s a theme here: Nothing gets done alone, but don’t be afraid to think big.
For my last formal hurrah, I had the opportunity to lead The Kavli Foundation, learn and lead in philanthropy, and work with Fred Kavli. It proved to be a phenomenal experience, and one that’s best had towards the end of one’s career, when a bit more wisdom complements expertise and experience.
Perhaps the major outcome during those years was the support provided by the foundation very early on that catalyzed an initiative to map the functioning brain over the next decade or two. That initiative became President Obama’s BRAIN Initiative in 2013, the nation’s first science grand challenge problem of the 21st century.
By the way, we happen to be sitting in the Fred Kavli Auditorium. After Fred’s death in 2013, the foundation was looking for a way to honor him. I contacted the president of the Academy back then, Ralph Cicerone, for ideas. Long story short, we ended up providing the Academy in 2017 with a major endowment gift. And as a tribute to Fred Kavli, the Academy agreed to name this auditorium in his honor, here in what I call the “Cathedral” of Science, Engineering, and Medicine for the country.
Finally, let me say that, for me, the best part of engineering, policy, entrepreneurship, and giving back is that it’s actually fun. So I say: keep searching, stay curious, solve problems, contribute to policy, and perhaps most importantly, enjoy the journey. Thank you all very much.