By Neal Singer

Photography By Randy Montoya

Thursday, February 02, 2017

Jeff Tsao at Harvard explores social underpinnings of physical-science research

Sandia researcher Jeff Tsao

Jeff Tsao (1120), always interested in new ideas, has accepted a year-long, quarter-time position at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center’s Science, Technology, and Public Policy program, where he is working with former Sandia VP Venky Narayanamurti on improving the processes and policies that aid good research.

In a jointly authored commentary in the November 2015 issues of Physics Today, the pair made the point that though hard-science researchers tended to look down upon the social sciences, they might be used to create guidelines that help researchers in the physical sciences chart a productive course between excessive caution or its opposite.

“As mathematicised, deep, and envied as are the physical sciences, research in them is just as much a social enterprise, and practiced just as much like an art or craft as is research in other sciences,” they write. But they found that research teams that are highly successful seem to rely for direction only on the intuitive sense of their leaders, “without the analytical language or tool sets necessary to determine best practices, improve and replicate them, and share them with other research groups.”

Jeff’s aim, with Narayanamurti and others, is to use science to develop social guidelines to help keep hard-science research productive.

Jeff made an impression on the world mind in 2010 when he and coauthors published a paper that asserted the then-unusual thesis that widespread replacement of the Edison light bulb by LEDs might not lead to the generally expected “green” energy savings but rather, greater light emissions and therefore more productivity.

Narayanamurti went from his Sandia research VP position in the late 1980s and early 1990s to dean of Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, which he founded. Now he is a former director of the Belfer Center program.

The Belfer Center has a keen interest in exploring the intersection of science and public policy. In 2015, it was ranked the No. 1 university-affiliated “think tank” in a University of Pennsylvania study. Its program fellows have gone on to fill key political positions, and include former US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, former US United Nations ambassador Samantha Power, and John Holdren, senior adviser to former President Barack Obama on science and technology.

 “Sandia of course is one of our nation’s premier R&D organizations,” says Jeff. “My hope is that the work I do this year will ultimately inform how Sandia organizes its research activities for greater productivity and impact. Let’s improve our understanding of how to invest our precious research funds as wisely as we can!”

Other papers are in progress.