The Ways of Washington
NSF board chairman keeps long-term policy issues at the forefront
By Ronald Roach
At a time when immediate homeland security concerns are helping to bring about increases in the National Science Foundation’s budget, Dr. Warren Washington can be expected to press the federal agency on long-term policy issues, such as improving K-12 science education and generating interest on the part of young Americans to pursue science careers. Serving a two-year term as chairman of the National Science Board, which is the NSF governing and policy board, Washington is seen as a leader who operates with a pragmatic and focused style on current issues while not losing sight of the long-term picture.
“One of the challenges of the position is that you have a large board and you have to be able to move the group forward in a focused way,” Washington says.
Considered one of the nation’s top meteorologists, Washington directs the Climate Change Research Section in the Climate and Global Dynamics Division at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Colorado. A Clinton administration appointee to the National Science Board in 1994, he was reappointed in 2000 for a second six-year term. Last May, fellow members elected Washington the board’s chairman, making the soft-spoken meteorologist the first African American to serve in the position.
“It’s been obvious to many of us on the board that Warren’s contributions were always welcomed, respected and highly desired. He became chair because he was the right person for the job,” says Dr. Jane Lubchenco, a National Science Board member and a zoology professor at Oregon State University.
Dr. Daniel Hastings, a newly appointed member of the board and MIT professor in aeronautics and astronautics, is just getting to know Washington. He left a recent board meeting impressed with Washington’s leadership style.
“He ran the meeting well. It moved forward because he has a sense of direction. In that sense, he did a good job,” Hastings says.
Washington’s reputation as a scientist springs largely from his expertise in computer modeling of the earth’s climate. His primary research areas include both atmospheric science and climate research. He first joined the NCAR in 1963 as a research scientist and became a senior scientist in 1975.
Washington, who was born and raised in Portland, Ore., says his parents stressed education even though as college-educated Blacks their degrees did not always secure them professional positions given that racial discrimination and limited opportunities ran rampant.
“Both of my parents encouraged (my four brothers and I) to go to college,” he says.
As a youngster, Washington demonstrated considerable interest in science and math. Encouragement from a high-school chemistry teacher helped steer him to Oregon State University where he earned a bachelor’s in physics. He later earned a master’s in meteorology from Oregon State, and a doctorate in meteorology from Pennsylvania State University.
Washington recalls that taking a job as a weather radar operator as an undergraduate proved instrumental in stimulating his interest in meteorology. Exposure to computers and computer modeling during a summer job at Stanford University got Washington hooked on the use of computer modeling in climate research, he says, noting that it was the early 1960s when such work was just beginning.
“I was really impressed. You could solve these difficult equations by the use of computer methods,” he says.
As one of a few African Americans with a doctorate in meteorology, Washington has long sought to encourage young Blacks and other minorities to consider careers in science. The issue of the nation’s work-force development weighs heavily in his thinking because he believes that the United States has done a poor job educating minority students, and poorly educates all students in science and mathematics.
“The crisis in work-force development is being made more acute by the difficulty we will be having in attracting foreign students since security concerns will restrict their numbers in the U.S.,” Washington says.
Washington expects to air his concerns before the U.S. Congress and the Bush administration after the National Science Foundation releases a major study and set of recommendations on work-force development this spring.
Among awards and distinctions, Washington is a fellow of the American Meteorological Society (AMS) and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), a fellow of the African Scientific Institute, and a member of the American Geophysical Union. Washington received the Le Verrier Medal of the Societe Meteorologique de France in 1995. In February 2002, he was elected to membership in the National Academy of Engineering.
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