Paul Robinson: 10 years of accomplishment as President
When Paul Robinson came to Sandia, the Berlin Wall had just come down, the Soviet Union was reeling, careening toward history’s dustbin, and the nuclear weapons establishment was beginning — beginning — to think about the challenges of a post-Cold War world.
Paul, who had worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory from 1967-1985, became head of its primary weapons programs by 1980. After a brief stint in the private sector, he was appointed by President Reagan in 1988 as the US Ambassador to nuclear testing talks with the Soviets in Geneva, Switzerland.
And then to Sandia.
His technical fluency, his ambassadorial cachet, and his reputation for deep thoughts about issues regarding nuclear weapons, made him a perfect fit for the new post-Cold War thinking and leadership the Labs sought.
Upon joining Sandia as director of the newly created Systems Analysis Center in October 1990, Paul said, “I’m particularly excited to be able to work with Sandia systems analysts to think through, in considerable depth, new directions in defense and other areas that would make the most sense for the US.”
A new VP for a new division
Paul advanced quickly from his director position to a newly created VP slot: Vice President of Laboratory Development. The new Division 4000 was part of a major organizational shuffle that took effect Aug. 1, 1991. That new group, said Labs President Al Narath, would have major responsibilities in quality, change management, strategic planning, tech transfer, coordination with political and military leaders, and development of new Labs-wide information systems. It was, in short, the organization that would play a key role in defining and shaping a Sandia Labs for the 21st century.
Between the time he became VP and when he was appointed to the top Labs position in August 1995, Sandia was in the midst of dramatic readjustments. Just a few high points of those eventful years: The Tiger Team reviews had just been completed and their impact was being felt throughout the Labs. CRADAs — cooperative research and development agreements — and technology transfer efforts in general — encouraged by 1989 legislation sponsored by Senators Pete Domenici and Jeff Bingaman — were assuming a larger role in the Labs’ strategic planning. Quality process management became much more formalized. AT&T, the Labs’ steward for 44 years, announced it wouldn’t seek to renew its no-fee contract to manage the Labs after Sept. 30, 1993. After a complex, competitive, DOE-managed bid process, Martin Marietta was awarded the contract to manage Sandia, bringing its own distinctive culture and managerial style to the Labs. Shortly thereafter, Martin Marietta merged with fellow defense contractor Lockheed Aircraft to form Lockheed Martin.
While this was going on, the post-Cold War role of the nation’s weapons labs and their operation also came under scrutiny from the so-called Galvin Commission. The outcome of that commission report was a wake-up call that the national labs needed to become much more efficient and businesslike in their operations. The long-term impact of the commission findings still affect, at least indirectly, the ways Sandia conducts business.
Meanwhile, technical strides continued to be made in a wide range of emerging technologies — microelectronics, computing, materials, sensors, across the entire spectrum of the labs portfolio, really. And a first-ever visit by Sandia scientists and engineers to a secret science city in the former Soviet Union marked the beginning of cooperative relationship that continues to this day.
‘I am delighted’
Against this background — only the broadest-brush picture of the Labs’ state at the time — came a momentous announcement, momentous especially for Paul: Al Narath would step down (or step up, as he moved to a key management position with Lockheed Martin) and Paul Robinson, the former ambassador, the PhD physicist, and former Los Alamos weapons chief, would become Sandia Labs Director and President of Sandia Corporation. The date was Aug. 4, 1995.
“There is no question in my mind that what Al [Narath] is passing to me is the world’s number one laboratory,” Paul told the Lab News the day of his confirmation by the Sandia Corp. Board of Directors. “I am delighted. And I am challenged to try and see how we can make it better.” Joining Paul as Executive VP was John Crawford, who was serving as VP of the Sandia/California site. Later, when John retired, Paul tapped Joan Woodard as his Executive VP, a position she still holds today.
Problems and controversies
Within days of his promotion, Paul was greeted with the first of several major problems and controversies that arose during his tenure. The Labs had made a decision to bring the World Wide Web, because of its limitless promise as a tool for information sharing, to desktops across the Labs. Fast on the heels of that decision, the Labs was hit by a computer misuse flap, caused by some employees downloading inappropriate materials from the web.
In ensuing years, other controversies — not all Sandia-specific, to be sure, because some involved the entire nuclear weapons complex — involved polygraph testing, security lapses, and diversity challenges (specifically, alleged security profiling of Asian- and Pacific Island heritage-Americans in the wake of the Los Alamos Wen Ho Lee case).
Paul, characteristically, addressed each controversy straight on, openly, and with no-nonsense leadership. In a memorable comment during a diversity standdown mandated by DOE, Paul addressed the issue of less-than-professional treatment of underlings by some Sandia managers. He said, bluntly and very publicly, that rudeness from the top down is not acceptable at Sandia. “That’s bull****,” he said with a fervor that left no doubt he meant it.
First among equals
During his tenure as Sandia President and Labs Director, Paul belonged to a very small fraternity — directors of America’s three nuclear weapons labs. And although his colleagues at Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos were highly accomplished and capable leaders, there was a perception — and not just among Sandians — that Paul was the first among equals in that club. His stature, physically as well as in reputation and accomplishment, made him an always-compelling advocate, champion, and representative of the weapons labs during frequent congressional testimony and interactions with the congressional delegation.
Paul had sat across the table from the Soviets during many arms control negotiation sessions in Geneva, so it isn’t surprising that he became a leader in the effort to increase contacts and cooperation between DOE labs and their Russian counterparts in the post-Cold War years. Under his leadership, Sandia established relationships with Russian labs that continue to advance the causes of nonproliferation, nuclear waste management, and, in a recent initiative, major cooperation to advance the vision of a global nuclear future.
The most electrifying event during Paul’s tenure, of course, was the attack on the World Trade Center and the subsequent American response. By interesting coincidence, Paul, during a brief stint in the private sector after leaving Los Alamos, had actually worked in the WTC. The attacks were very personal for him. As he wrote in an invited front page letter to all Sandians in the Sept. 21, 2001, Lab News: “For me, the memories were particularly stark and painful. From late 1985 until early 1988, I sat at the southwest corner of the 93rd floor of Tower Two. Every day since the tragedy, the faces flash through my mind of all the people who were likely there that morning — what has been their fate?”
‘Who will now rise to avenge . . .’
And he concluded, at the end of his thousand-word open letter and meditation: “And with all of the deaths — in Washington, in New York, and with those who perished in the airplane that took a sharp plunge to the ground outside Pittsburgh — our nation faces a great crisis.
“Who will now rise to avenge their deaths? Who will create the means of preventing or blunting such attacks in the future? Who will devise the new means of protecting our air travel systems and restoring our ‘open and trusting’ ways of life? Who will design the buildings of the future to still be just as beautiful as those we lost, but prove even more protective of the lives inside? Further, who will step forward to ‘wage peace’ by grappling with the fundamental problems that divide mankind and succeed in securing a lasting peace with freedom for all? These tasks are not ours alone, but they indeed are our challenges, just as surely as there is any truth in our belief that science and engineering have an enormous power to make the world a better place. This week the trumpet has sounded the call for ‘exceptional service’ louder than at any time in our lives. Let us answer the call.”
That rousing call set the stage for Sandia to become a key partner with the new Department of Homeland Security to find technological answers to pressing national security issues. Indeed, before the week of the attack was out, Sandians were working 24/7 to begin to answer the call.
In the subsequent years, Sandia technology has been brought to bear against America’s enemies in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Lives have been saved and millions of Americans’ lives made safer as a result of work that, even now, is still really in its infancy.
The work and the people . . . always the people
Paul leaves Sandia while it is in the midst of its largest construction/infrastructure project of its 50-plus-year history. The MESA project is well on its way to completion. Paul — along with key labs associates like Senior VP Tom Hunter (named this week to succeed him) and political supporters like Sen. Pete Domenici and others — has championed and shepherded MESA through the convoluted passageways of the Washington funding maze.
MESA, along with major nanotechnology infrastructure investment (represented by the Center for Integrated Nanotechnology), a robust supercomputing initiative (Red Storm, the latest in a long line of blazingly fast Sandia supercomputers, will come on line this year), and a rapidly expanding capability in the biosciences, combined with Sandia’s traditional competencies across a wide spectrum of science and engineering fields, provide compelling evidence that, even in the midst of political storms and foreign wars, under Paul’s leadership, the work came first.
The work — and the people . . . Because Paul, for all his technocratic credentials, ultimately has been a man who leads from the front, who moves and inspires people to do their best and to live up to the Labs’ original challenge: to provide exceptional service in the national interest.