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PUBLICATIONS Inside Illinois Vol. 23, No. 7, Oct. 2, 2003

Engineering professor spends year as liaison at White House

By Sharita Forrest, Assistant Editor
217-244-1072; slforres@illinois.edu

Photo by Bill Wiegand
Thomas Mackin, 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 Fellow.

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 later.

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 Council.

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 the president.

“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.”

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