Why George Keyworth Thought Science Belonged in the White House

Reagan’s science advisor died this week; Keyworth supported efforts to improve engineering education and believed “white coats” are an essential part of the White House team

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George Keyworth II at his office in the White House, where he was a science adviser to President Ronald Reagan, in Washington, Aug. 4, 1981.
Photo: George Tames/The New York Times/Redux

George “Jay” Keyworth II, a Los Alamos lab physicist, science advisor to President Ronald Reagan, and long-time member of Hewlett-Packard’s board of directors, died Wednesday at age 77. Keyworth is probably best known for championing the so-called “Star Wars” missile defense system. But before diving into that controversial debate, he joined with IEEE Spectrum to gather ideas for improving engineering education.

I worked with him on Spectrum’s engineering education project in 1981. I had been covering both government agencies and education, so an obvious move was to consider what the government could and should do to address an engineering educational system that was widely recognized to be eroding. Spectrum’s then managing editor Ellis Rubinstein and I, with the encouragement and help of National Science Foundation Director John Slaughter, contacted prominent engineers in education, industry, and government—including newly appointed science advisor Keyworth—to discuss the issues.

Engineering education: coping with the crisis, published in IEEE Spectrum

We spent a full day in a New York City conference room hammering out possible solutions, with William Perry (later appointed secretary of defense), MIT president Paul Gray, Purdue dean of engineering John Hancock, University of Texas EE department chairman Herbert Woodson, Exxon Research president Edward David, IBM vice president Jerry Haddad, and Bell Labs vice president Seth Washburn. We provided a complete transcript to the participants and produced an article published in Spectrum’s November 1981 issue [PDF]. Barely two years out of journalism school when I first met Keyworth, I confess, I felt seriously overwhelmed by him and this group of luminaries; he went out of his way to make me feel like a peer.

Rubinstein recalls thinking that Keyworth seemed young, lively, and open minded. And, he told me, he mentioned to Keyworth that a lot of members of the scientific community were worried about the types of people President Reagan was bringing into key roles in his administration.

“He responded, ‘Yeah, I know what you mean….those cave dwellers, ’” Rubinstein recalls.

Keyworth was passionate about the topic of engineering education. “In my previous life at Los Alamos,” he said during our discussions, “we attracted a large number of Nobel-caliber scientists from top universities. They were fed up with the academic life—fed up with large classes, crummy equipment, the whole environment.”

He suggested, for one, that the Department of Defense be allowed to allocate a portion of research grant money to bump up faculty salaries, say, 40 percent, a proposal that drew some opposition from the group. “I don’t think there are any fundamental laws that prevent” this, Keyworth maintained.

Keyworth also expressed concern about pre-college science and engineering education (what we now call STEM), indicating that high school courses did not convey that science could be fun, and that scientific and engineering careers offered more than “just a job.” He placed the blame on a decline in the quality of high-school science teachers, an issue that, again, could be attributed to poor salaries.

The group also discussed pushing state legislatures to increase investments in engineering programs and encouraging companies to put a percentage of gross earnings into programs at universities, an effort that, some thought, could be supported by tax credits.

Later that year, at Keyworth’s request, we convened a similar group in Washington, D.C, to lay out an action plan and assign responsibilities, providing all attendees with an edited report of their discussions.

Keyworth at Midterm, published in IEEE Spectrum

I met with Keyworth again in 1983, spending several hours in a one-on-one interview trying to get a real picture of his experience as a science advisor [PDF]. The role was not a new one; the first Science Advisor to the President was Vannevar Bush in 1941, whose official title was Chairman of the Office of Scientific Research in Development. The title was changed to Science Advisor in 1951. Bush was the first in a long list of prominent scientists and engineers who held the post, interrupted only briefly in the 1970s, when Richard Nixon declined to appoint a replacement in 1973, leaving the office vacant before a new law creating an Office of Science and Technology Policy was passed in 1976. And, of course, Donald Trump has left the position vacant, as well.

Keyworth’s comments about his unique role in the White House and the challenges of the time make thinking back on this time in the early 1980s particularly resonant.

 “We (the staff of the OSTP) are the only ones in the White House who wear white coats, figuratively speaking,” he told me in 1983. “Somebody has got to raise the question of vitality and protection of our technical capabilities. I am usually the only person who ever sits at a National Security Council meeting or a Cabinet meeting who is a technical person.”

He didn’t see himself as an advocate for science per se because, he said, advocacy would only come into play if “we had a President who was anti-science and we had a science advisor who was pro-science.”

Keyworth’s main goals as science advisor at that time were, he said, to see “a widespread realization of the role of science and its importance to our economic growth… [with] bipartisan support and broader recognition in Congress,” as well as “moving basic research into a larger and larger element of the whole civilian Federal R&D budget.”

In terms of devoting resources towards Reagan’s “Star Wars” proposal, challenging the research community to find a defense against nuclear weapons, he told me “We have got a second-class nation…virtually a developing nation, threating the existence of the United States, threatening the entire free world… I think it is a pretty frightening set of circumstances, and the more I look forward into the future, the more unstable I see it.”

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