Karl Hess' passion for science wasn't about to end with his retirement from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in May. After a 30-year career as one of the most accomplished faculty members in the storied history of the College of Engineering, Hess had planned to fill his days decoding a giant riddle of quantum physics.
Hess should now add science adviser to the President and United States government to his retirement plans. Hess has been nominated by President Bush to serve on the National Science Board, the 24-member body that oversees and establishes the policies for the National Science Foundation, while also advising the President and the United States Congress on national policy issues related to science and engineering research and education. On June 15 the White House announced the nominations, which await confirmation by the Senate, of Hess and seven others to serve on the board.
Hess has been a Swanlund Chair Professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and played a key role at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology from its inception to his recent retirement.
"Through his singular accomplishments and his role as a founding member of the Beckman Institute, Karl Hess has been enormously influential in shaping science and technology research on this campus," UIUC Chancellor Richard Herman said. "I am confident that in his new capacity, Karl will have a similar impact on the nation."
Hess came to the University of Illinois from his native Austria as a postdoctoral researcher in 1973, later returned as a visiting professor in 1977, and was promoted to full professor in 1980. He is considered one of the world's foremost experts in the fields of electron transport, computational electronics, nanostructures, and semiconductor physics. Hess believes he was chosen for the NSB because of his expertise in the areas of nanoscience and supercomputing applications. Serving on the board, he said, is a great honor.
"This is for me a great point in my career and also tells me something about this country of my choice: that somebody coming here just 30 years ago would be chosen for such a board," Hess said. "That would not be possible in many other countries. I think that democracy here and the way the United States works is very unique. I'm very, very happy that I chose this country as my home."
The National Science Foundation is an independent federal agency with a budget of $5 billion a year that accounts for about 20 percent of all federally funded basic academic research. The NSB said board members are selected on the basis of their eminence in certain fields. As a board member Hess will have a voice in directing science policies and funding, but he won't walk into board meetings with an agenda.
"I will approach that position with a totally open mind," he said.
Pierre Wiltzius, Director of the Beckman Institute, recommended Hess to Chancellor Herman for nomination to the NSB.
"I have greatly valued Karl's insights and advice, which are always of the utmost integrity," Wiltzius said. "He has reached the highest levels of professional recognition, being a member of both the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. I am convinced that Karl will serve prominently on the National Science Board."
Hess' agenda upon retirement included continuing his work on what are known as "hidden variables," a concept that has befuddled and divided physicists ever since Einstein brought the notion to quantum mechanical theory in 1935. But after the White House let him know in January that he was under consideration for the NSB, Hess warmed to the idea of another role to play in retirement.
"I knew I had all this research to do, but I also knew there might be a possibility of this appointment and I was looking forward to it," Hess said. "It gives me a very close connection to the action in this country - what is important in my area of science and engineering."