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By Calla Cofield
In 1966, Donald Kerr began his physics career at Los Alamos National Laboratory, young and eager to apply his training to solving some of the biggest challenges facing the nation. Now, more than forty years later, he’s looking forward to the chance to read the newspaper in the morning. With the end of the last presidential administration, Kerr is taking a break from a decade of high-profile jobs in the national intelligence community, culminating in his appointment as the second highest intelligence officer in the Bush administration. As the Obama administration rolls in, and with it a new flock of physicists ready to get their feet wet in government, Kerr shares a few words of experience and advice.
A dedication to serving his country is clear from the very start of Kerr’s career, beginning at Los Alamos, where he focused on ionospheric physics and its applications in high altitude weapons effects. Ten years later, he began working with the Department of Energy during its formation, testifying before congress while first in charge of defense programs and later energy technology. He returned to Los Alamos and directed the lab from 1979 through 1985. Kerr’s career quickly advanced to leadership positions not often filled by scientists so young. For his next challenge, he left the government sector to work in private industry, where he would hold top positions at three corporations, including the defense contractor SAIC.
Kerr’s résumé continued to become a patchwork of posts and appointments, all focusing on issues of security and national intelligence. He re-entered government work in 1997, beginning with a position with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, followed by a job as Deputy Director of Science and Technology for the Central Intelligence Agency, and in 2005 Kerr became Director of the National Reconnaissance Office. By overseeing and advising researchers working on cutting edge technology and scientific analysis related to national security, Kerr kept his physics knowledge sharp.
“Physics is one part of applying all of the tools and techniques that one can think of to different parts of the intelligence problem. It’s woven in,” says Kerr. “You need a strong science and technology input, and at the same time, you need people who have field experience who know what kinds of things you can do in different places. You’ve got to build the whole team.”
In 2007 Kerr was given his first Senate-confirmed position as Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence, placing him at the crossroads of all incoming intelligence information. Kerr was privy to information about terrorist activities and the state of military affairs. He had become skilled at assessing this kind of information and communicating his assessments to policy makers. “It’s a long way from the laboratory or the classroom. The consequences of getting it wrong are so different,” he says. “If you make a mistake in a laboratory experiment, you’re not putting lives at risk.”
Looking back, Kerr says he never expected to stay in the intelligence community as long as he did. These days he works as a research professor at George Mason University, is on a few boards and advisory committees, and is otherwise enjoying having more discretion over his own time. He is in contact with some of the physicists who have entered positions with the new administration, most of whom are in the energy or national security sectors. Even after forty years of experience, Kerr says there isn’t a skill set or type of experience that can guarantee a physicist will be ready for a job in government.
“It seems to me that what you do is wish them luck,” he says sincerely. “And the reason you can’t do better than that is they’re working with a different set of people in a different context. Who could have predicted the combination of the economy being where it is, the two wars…you don’t get to choose the problem. It’s not like laying out your research agenda and saying ‘I’m going to focus on that problem.’ So I think it’s important that people can adapt to the situation.”
His only other piece of advice is a humble one, giving credit to the mentors he’s had along the way. “It’s trite to say, but make sure you have the right bosses, because they’re the ones that give you the right opportunities, and enough rope to go hang yourself,” he says with a laugh. “Over the years I was very fortunate. I worked for very good people. They were confident enough in me to see whether I could really take it on, and it seems to have worked out so far.”
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