Q&A with Maxine Savitz ’58

Posted July 13th, 2009 at 2:42 pm.

After a decades-long, multifaceted career that included management and executive positions overseeing R&D and technology transfer in the public and private sectors, Maxine Savitz ’58 recently was named a member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST). She spoke with Bryn Mawr S&T about her remarkable career.

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Maxine Savitz

S&T: After earning a Ph.D. at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of California–Berkeley, and some time in New York, you and your husband, a psychiatrist headed into military service, moved to the Washington area. How did you launch your professional career?

Savitz: My husband was going to be stationed at Fort Belvoir [Virginia], and I happened to see that there was an engineering lab, so I wrote to them. They were looking for a scientist with an advanced degree, and I ended up staying there five years. I learned a whole new area in chemistry—fuel cells. I built an internal laboratory for research, and at that point I found that I preferred the management of R&D and helping to guide it rather than perform it. Having done internal research, I understood that you couldn’t predict when a project was going to make a discovery in the laboratory.

S&T: So you left the laboratory for the government. What was your next step?

Savitz: The National Science Foundation had a program called Research Applied to National Need, where they looking for more applied ways to solve potential problems, and energy was identified as one. They had just hired an economist from Stanford who was there on an intergovernmental personnel exchange program, and they wanted to balance him with a technology person looking at the energy demand side. I really liked the broader perspective in this new area.

S&T: From NSF you went into the executive branch of the federal government as part of a new initiative whose timing couldn’t have been better.

Savitz: The Nixon administration was forming a conservation office at the Department of Interior. Jack Gibbons, who subsequently became the head of the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment and President Clinton’s first science adviser, became head of the first Office of Conservation, and he asked me if I’d like to join him. And then the oil embargo came, and conservation became a solution.

Talk about instant gratification: You would write a recommendation that the general public should do what the government was doing to reduce lighting levels, and the next day the President would announce it.

S&T: What was the reaction to that recommendation?

Savitz: There were three major lamp manufacturers in the country at that time, GE, Westinghouse, and Sylvania, and their executives were all in [Deputy Energy Secretary Eric] Zausner’s office. They told me I was going to put them out of business and cause layoffs because people were going to reduce the amount of lighting they were using.

S&T: What lessons did you draw from that?

Savitz: I learned to talk to industry before you act, to get information from them. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you change what you’re going to do, but you just learn to talk to as many people as possible to get their input.

S&T: You worked for the DOE during the Nixon, Ford, and Carter presidencies, served as deputy assistant secretary for conservation from 1979 to 1983, and won DOE’s Outstanding Service Medal in 1981.

During the 1980s in the Reagan administration, the department underwent a lot of changes, and you decided to leave for the private sector. How did that come about?

Savitz: I got an opportunity to join Garrett AiResearch, an aerospace company that makes small engines, in 1985. Garrett later became AlliedSignal, and after that acquired Honeywell. I was hired to be on the staff of the chief technology officer. I had known Garrett from when I had been at DOE; they were a contractor for gas turbines. The government was looking to develop more efficient turbine technology, and ceramics was one of the approaches.

In the late ’80s they formed their own ceramics company and asked me to head it. People in our corporate lab in Morristown, New Jersey, and in my group in California created components that are now in every Airbus airliner and many of Boeing’s planes.

S&T: After you retired as general manager for technology partnerships at Honeywell, you continued to stay active in science and technology as a member of various science advisory boards and industry associations, including the National Academy of Engineering, the National Science Board, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the Electric Power Research Institute, and the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy.

Now you’re a member of the very influential President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. What do you hope to accomplish with PCAST?

Savitz: The agenda will be set both by the group and by President Obama and John Holdren, who is the science adviser. If you look at the makeup of the group, it really parallels the priorities the President has talked about: energy, education, and health.

S&T: Do you anticipate changes in the role of science advisers in this administration over the previous Bush administration?

Savitz: President Obama wants fact-based science and technology policy. He’s not going to dictate. Even though he talks about clean energy and energy efficiency a lot, he’s not going to set unrealistic goals and he will provide the policies and resources to accomplish these goals. He wants it to be fact-based. I think that’s very important.

S&T: How do you see your role among this very distinguished group of scientists and engineers?

Savitz: My background clearly has been in the energy efficiency area for over 30 years, and I think that’s part of the reason I was selected. I can bring that knowledge. I’ve also had industrial experience, so I also bring a perspective on what is possible in the world of industry.

S&T: Is there any one experience in your career that you value over the others?

Savitz: No. It’s been a continuum, being able to build on my knowledge and expertise. I really encourage people to continue with school and get a good, solid foundation.

S&T: What do you consider your proudest accomplishment in each of these different sectors?

Savitz: Getting the field of energy efficiency started, both the technologies and policies for the efficient use of energy. As a result of these efforts, in the ‘ 70s and ’80s, energy use in this country did not increase, but our gross domestic product did.

In the ceramics area, the technology of getting something from the laboratory into production and actually have them flying on airplanes is harder than one thinks. It is a different mentality from which I learned a lot.

The people I worked with through my career are just wonderful people. I learned much from them and I have helped to mentor others.

I have been fortunate to have a wonderful and supportive family throughout.

Tom Durso writes about science, health care, and business for a variety of publications, including the Philadelphia Business Journal and Family Business magazine.

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