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Arden L. Bement: A Vacuum Cleaner for New Knowledge

by Philipp Steger

Running the National Institute of Standards & Technology (NIST) is quite a challenge. After all, this federal agency employs some 3000 scientists, engineers, technicians, and administrative staff developing standards and measurements and conducting one of the nation's most interesting technology development programs, the Advanced Technology Program (ATP).  Running the National Science Foundation (NSF), the agency that funds about 20% of all federally-supported basic research at American universities and colleges, is certainly an equally formidable task. What sort of challenge would it be to run both NSF and NIST at the same time? An impossible one, you might say. Still, it's precisely the sort of challenge Arden L. Bement, seems to relish.

 

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When Rita Colwell, then director of NSF, resigned unexpectedly in February 2004, giving the White House a mere ten days to come up with a replacement, Arden L. Bement, director of NIST since 2001, was chosen as NSF's interim director. Bement, expecting that a permanent director would be found soon, remained as NIST's director and juggled both positions for more than half a year. "I didn't see it as a burden or an imposition, but rather as an opportunity to stay engaged with these two institutions at the same time," recalls Arden L. Bement. "It only worked, though, because I had outstanding deputy directors in both places who took care of day-to-day operations and kept both places functioning in a superior manner, so I was reasonably free to deal with ceremonial duties, budget preparations, working with policymakers within the administration and on the hill - all activities that are required of both positions."
Finally, in September 2004, the White House announced its choice for permanent director of NSF. Interim director Arden L. Bement would be succeeded for a six-year term by, well, . . . permanent director Arden L. Bement.
 
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President Bush's choice is not astonishing given Bement's track record and his proven leadership abilities. Even before coming to NIST, Bement could look back at a distinguished career, one which had taken many shapes and forms and had evolved out of his early aspiration to become a musician: As a piano player in high school, Bement had participated in a number of contests and was looking forward to scholarships to be able to pursue his passion, when his practical streak got the upper hand. He started to ponder the likelihood of making a living as a musician, apparently concluded that it would be a long shot, and turned his attention instead towards electronics, another early interest. He had set his sights on an attractive program the Navy offered in electronics but, after excelling at all the written exams, didn't pass the physical. Tough to imagine these days: At 73 years, Bement, who still works out, appears unusually fit and agile.

The route he chose instead of the Navy must have been at least as physically taxing: Bement went to work in a mine. "It was hard work at very high elevations - probably the most exciting period in my life, because I got into mountain climbing, had a chance to do many different types of manual labor, and learned some new skills. But after having done that for a year-and-a-half I rediscovered the merits of getting an education and went on to the Colorado School of Mines and eventually graduated in metallurgical engineering," says Bement. After graduating from the Colorado School of Mines, Bement started as a scientist at a General Electric laboratory, eventually got his Ph.D. at the University of Michigan, and transitioned into management. "The Ph.D. was a requirement for any senior management position," explains Bement. "I enjoyed working with people, developing new programs, and being responsible for a major area of work at the laboratory. And being a manager gave me a broader network, both nationally and internationally." Throughout his career, Bement continued to oscillate between management, research, teaching, working for private industry, and serving in the government.
 
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One may be tempted to look at Bement's accomplishments with a trace of envy and to wish that they at least be the product of this most prolific of afflictions, workaholism. But, alas, Bement claims, "I am not a workaholic. I try to pace myself."

Still, work does play an important part in his life, as reflected by his current, albeit downscaled, schedule - adjusted to the exigencies of running only one large organization at a time. Although Arden Bement sticks to "office hours" that lie within the range of the average human being - he arrives at 8 AM and leaves at 5.30 PM - the early riser admits to working outside the office as well, starting with work-related reading over breakfast and finishing with some evening event. "A typical evening includes receptions, official dinners, and generally a lot of my outreach activities. These activities are critically important for my work," says Bement, who has moved into an apartment right across from NSF headquarters since assuming his current position.

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The National Science Foundation can certainly use someone with Bement's dedication, experience, and vision, as it charts its way into the future. Founded by Congress in 1950, NSF is probably one of the public institutions most highly regarded by America's scientists. Few, if any, doubt its importance and prominent role as a crucial part of the national innovation system. As the scientific enterprise gets increasingly complex and plays an ever more important part in politics and in policymaking, the foundation is hard- pressed to rise to the challenge of fulfilling a very broad mandate, serving a diverse community while remaining at the cutting edge of science.

"We serve a community that includes universities, community colleges, technical schools, and K-12. In that way, we have a much broader statutory mandate than most research councils in the world today, which are usually focused on research institutions and institutions of higher learning. Throughout NSF, education and research are two sides of the same coin. When we provide a research grant, we expect education to be an integral part of the research project," explains Bement.

Bement repeatedly emphasizes the importance of staying closely linked to the community that NSF serves. This, he explains, is achieved in a variety of ways: by bringing in experts from universities to work as program managers at NSF for a few years, thus closely linking and aligning the organization with its grantees and the world of academia; by having very active advisory committees; and by engaging the community whenever and wherever possible.

Although the community NSF serves - scientists and researchers applying for grants to fund their research - is certainly diverse, Bement would like it to be more so. Attracting minorities and women into science and engineering is one of his top priorities. "Minorities make up about 27% of our population, but only about 6% or 7% of academia. Our ultimate goal is to get a faculty across American universities that reflects the distribution of minorities in the population, so that younger people, minorities, and women have role models as part of their educational experience. Increasing that representation is both an opportunity and a challenge. I want to increase the numbers, but also accelerate the entire process."

Bement concedes that rising tuition costs at American universities make broadening the participation and bringing minority students into science and engineering even more difficult. "Many very bright people find themselves financially challenged. For them, financial assistance from the university and other sources becomes critical to their ability to study," says Bement.

Within this (hopefully) increasingly diverse community, NSF is also entrusted with promoting a research culture that allows for risk-taking. "It is vital that we stay focused on the frontier and anticipate new opportunities by supporting cutting-edge research," says Bement. One way of achieving this is to pay serious attention to the young and new faculty members. Bement believes that the US long-term capability in science and engineering depends on adequately developing the future workforce. "We need to provide the young with enough resources that they can get an early start to develop their own dreams. That, more than anything else, will keep the organization at the cutting edge."

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International collaboration is also high on his agenda: "We have a strategic objective to increase collaboration with scientists around the world and to increase resources for doing that and grow that program over time." Bement seems to take a cautious stance towards the efforts of the European Union to increase its innovative capacities. "It seems to me that the member states try to get back at least their fair share and possibly more of the money they put into the EU. The core of the rules of engagement appears to be collaboration with others within the EU. Whatever drives the success factor determines how the game is played."

Asked about his view on the EU's effort to network European researchers in the US and attract them back to Europe, Bement says: "If it is successful, it could be a serious challenge. But it's a two way street: The frequency of these types of exchanges is going to increase. And top scientists returning to their home countries could give us an outpost in these countries and actually improve scientific exchange."
 
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These days, much of the job of running an organization like the National Science Foundation lies in representing the organization in its interactions with a complex web of stakeholders. But at the end of the day, the success and credibility of even the best publicized institutions boil down to whether they can successfully deliver on the promises made by its leaders. So, too, NSF's ability to deliver and live up to its mission hinges not only on Arden Bement's capacity to reach out to various stakeholders, but also on his ability to bring out the best in the people who work for the foundation. Bement seems well poised to do so. Aware of the challenges people face - "everyone in the organization has to look in many different directions at the same time, which can be overwhelming, if not managed well" - Bement argues that he and the senior management team need "to provide a vision, create a learning environment for the organization, and provide opportunities for collaboration within the organization. But we also need to be very careful that our top program officers and top division directors are not overwhelmed by process in the form of policies, regulations, non-discretionary work, so they can keep focused on their primary responsibilities." "Sometimes," Bement adds, "leadership means putting out ideas, setting hard challenges, defining milestones and time schedules, and challenging the organization to reach higher levels of performance."

To profess the importance of listening to people and engaging with them has become somewhat of a fad, purportedly embraced even by the most hardened autocrats. Still, when Arden L. Bement claims "willingness to listen and engage" as one of his most important assets, it sounds refreshingly authentic. Asked about what else he attributes his success to, Bement cites a "low fascination threshold. I get interested in a wide variety of things. To learn continuously is what I enjoy more than anything else. I am a vacuum cleaner for new knowledge, new experiences, new opportunities."


Related Links
- Advanced Technology Program
http://www.atp.nist.gov/
- Biography of Arden L. Bement on NSF's website
http://nsf.gov/news/speeches/bement/bement_bio.jsp
- National Institute of Standards and Technology
http://www.nist.gov/
- National Science Foundation
http://www.nsf.gov/

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