23, No. 7, Oct. 2, 2003
Engineering professor spends year
as liaison at White House
Sharita Forrest, Assistant Editor
by Bill Wiegand
professor of mechanical and industrial engineering,
spent a year in Washington, D.C., working int he Office
of Science and Technology Policy in the Executive
Office of the President of the United States.
A yearning to make
a personal contribution to the nation’s counter-terrorism initiatives
led one faculty member from his Urbana campus classroom to the steps
of the White House.
Thomas Mackin, professor of mechanical and industrial engineering, spent
a year in Washington, D.C., working in the Office of Science and Technology
Policy in the Executive Office of the President of the United States.
There, Mackin served as the White House liaison to interagency groups
on information technology and nanotechnology from April 15, 2002, to
April 14, 2003, as an American Society of Mechanical Engineers Executive
Mackin’s road to the capital began Sept. 11, 2001. In his classroom
in the wake of the terrorist attacks, Mackin said that he could not
foresee conducting his two class sessions the next day with the usual
material. Recognizing the unique learning opportunity that the collapse
of the World Trade Center posed for his engineering students, and recognizing
students’ needs to discuss the events, Mackin devoted his class
sessions that day to a failure analysis of the World Trade Center. When
an intrigued student e-mailed copies of Mackin’s presentations
to his father, the presentation was quickly disseminated to hundreds
of other people via e-mail, drawing Mackin into a public discourse that
flooded his inbox with e-mail and eventually brought him to the attention
of people in Washington.
Mackin said he felt a need to contribute to the post-Sept. 11 recovery
and regrouping in a personal way. A routine e-mail from the American
Society of Mechanical Engineers seeking applicants for its Executive
Fellow program, a missive he normally might have trashed without reading,
offered an opportunity to work on counterterrorism in Washington, D.C.,
and Mackin jumped at the chance.
After several rounds of interviews, Mackin received a call one Monday
in March 2002 notifying him of his appointment and asking if he could
be in Washington, D.C., by the following Friday. Luckily, Mackin had
finished his portion of the course he was co-teaching that semester
and while not able to leave immediately he was able to depart two weeks
The OSTP was established by Congress in 1976 to advise the president
and other leaders in the Executive Office on the impacts that science
and technology have on domestic and foreign affairs.
The OSTP, which
is directed by the President’s Science Adviser, John Marburger
III, also provides technical support to the Office of Homeland Security
and comprises two divisions: science and technology. Mackin was assigned
to the technology division, which includes departments in technology,
telecommunications, information technology, and space and aeronautics.
He reported to Richard Russell, associate director for technology and
senior director for telecommunications technology at the National Economic
The office also works with the private sector, state and local government
agencies, higher education and other nations to ensure that the $230
billion federal budget for research and development is invested in activities
that augment national security and prosperity.
Calling his experience “trial by fire,” Mackin said that
within a week of his arrival in Washington, D.C., he was not only representing
the White House at various meetings, he also was helping staff at OSTP
prepare for their Senate confirmation hearings.
Mackin acted as the White House liaison to both the Networking and Information
Technology Research and Development program and the National Nanotechnology
Initiative. As NNI liaison, Mackin worked with the subcommittee that
oversees the federal R&D budget. In addition, he interacted with
the House and Senate on legislation authorizing $3.4 billion in appropriations
for the NNI during the next four fiscal years.
However, Mackin’s primary responsibility in Washington, D.C.,
was working on technology policies on terror, the details of which he
could not divulge.
Calling it the “opportunity of a lifetime,” Mackin said
he found it amazing to realize he was representing the White House and
“You learn pretty quickly that you have this huge responsibility
and you’d better be careful with what you say because people are
listening,” Mackin said. “I’d never been in a position
before where people were listening so closely. I often joked in my office
that all the funding agencies that never returned my calls before now
returned every call I made within five minutes. When you call from the
White House, people return your calls.”
Although Mackin returned to campus in June, he continues to serve on
the Technical Advisory Group to the president’s Council of Advisers
on Science and Technology, which has been asked to review the NNI.
Mackin said his work in Washington changed his perspective on the scientific
and engineering enterprise in the United States and has demonstrated
to him that a great need exists for experts in these fields to function
as advisers to policymakers.
“I discovered there are a great many really inspired, intelligent
people working at various agencies on Capitol Hill and in the White
House, all of whom are trying to run these programs to the greatest
advantage,” Mackin said. “That was an incredible collection
of people to interact with because they were all working toward something
they believed in that was bigger than themselves.”