Erich Bloch

Erich Bloch (center) at a 1987 White House ceremony honoring outstanding science and math teachers.

Courtesy of Bassam Shakhashiri

Remembering Erich Bloch (1925–2016)

Erich Bloch, who died last week at age 91, was not your typical federal bureaucrat. As director of the National Science Foundation (NSF) in Arlington, Virginia, Bloch was called before the Senate science committee in the late 1980s to explain why NSF had awarded an earthquake research center to a team in Buffalo, New York, over a competing bid from researchers in California, where residents live in constant fear of the next great quake.

How could NSF make such a ridiculous choice? Senator Pete Wilson (R–CA) wanted to know. Rather than trying to placate an angry legislator, Bloch defended NSF’s peer-review process, considered the gold standard for identifying the best research proposals. Wilson wasn’t assuaged, and continued to bombard Bloch with questions. But Bloch stood his ground. Finally, the committee’s chairman, Senator Ernest Hollings (D–SC), leaned back and whispered to his staff: "It looks to me like Senator Wilson has picked on the wrong witness to try and make his point."

The hearing was quintessential Bloch. And those who served under him at NSF or have strong links to the agency can offer up many such cherished anecdotes. Many think he was arguably the most influential director in the 65-year history of the agency. “He was probably the best government manager ever, certainly at NSF,” says Gordon Bell, a legendary designer of computers who Bloch recruited in 1986 to manage a new NSF computer science directorate created to tap the vast potential of the emerging field.

By the time Bloch arrived at NSF in June 1984, he had already enjoyed a long and hugely successful career at IBM. Trained as an electrical engineer, Bloch oversaw the development of a novel semiconductor technology based on solid state components that allowed IBM to dominate the world of computing with its System 360. Industry observers said IBM CEO Thomas Watson Jr. had bet the company on Bloch’s ability to deliver, and he didn’t let them down.

But the German-born Bloch had run up against a glass ceiling at IBM, recalls Bell, who led the development of the VAX system for the Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) in the 1970s and who later spent 20 years at Microsoft before retiring last year. “He was a great engineer and a terrific manager, but he was never going to run IBM.” “He just didn’t fit the mold of an IBM CEO.”

Fortunately for Bloch, his experience as a corporate research manager meshed with what the Reagan administration wanted in an NSF director. It didn’t matter that he lacked something every previous NSF director had possessed—a Ph.D. And it certainly didn’t hurt that he was a Republican. “His appointment was welcomed in the White House because of his accomplishments at IBM, the close relationship we had developed, and his passion for a science policy that was in complete synch with the Administration,” recalls George (Jay) Keyworth, Reagan’s science adviser from 1981 to 1986.  

The new job launched Bloch on a second, 30-plus year career as a public servant and, later, as an adviser to the government and co-founder of a firm offering guidance to universities and private organizations seeking to tap his inside knowledge of how Washington, D.C., works. He won worldwide respect for what Ray Bye, a retired university administrator who led NSF’s congressional affairs shop under Bloch, calls “his willingness to listen, his direct and often penetrating rebuttal to questions, and his unquestioned honesty and integrity.”  

“Everything he did could be called significant,” says Mary Clutter, a retired career NSF-er whom Bloch chose as his senior science adviser and later promoted to head the agency’s biology directorate. “His contributions changed thousands of lives, including mine.”

Bell had left DEC when Bloch reached out to him to stand up a new computing directorate. It combined existing programs—hardware systems from engineering, information sciences from economics, and traditional computer science from the mathematics division—as well as NSF’s fledgling efforts in networking that would lead to the modern internet. “Try as we might, there was fierce competition for funding between the supercomputing centers and those doing traditional computer science research, who weren’t much interested in networks,” Bell says. The new directorate eventually also spawned the field of computational science, he adds, “but it took 20 years for that to happen.”

The importance of elevating computing within the scientific hierarchy at NSF should have been obvious, Bell says. “But if Erich hadn’t been there, it would have been another decade before computing got to this point.”

Center-based science

Another idea that Bloch felt was long overdue was creating a network of large, interdisciplinary research centers at universities that would combine training and education. A year before coming to NSF, Bloch had served on a National Academy of Engineering committee that offered NSF guidance on creating engineering research centers (ERCs). And the first six centers were funded shortly after he arrived at NSF.

The approach was initially resisted by many academics. They feared the centers would siphon money from bread-and-butter research grants and were dubious of what they saw as industrial-scale science—antithetical to the traditional model of having a single investigator direct a few graduate students. But Bloch was able to prevail with help from Keyworth and NSF’s governing body, the National Science Board. The ERC program grew rapidly, and it was soon followed by its larger cousin, the Science and Technology Centers, that funded similar work in all fields that NSF supported.

Former NSF Director Neal Lane had those battles in mind when he said of Bloch, "Not everyone agreed with Erich on everything he did as NSF director. But in my view he transformed NSF and, to a large extent, American science, mathematics, and engineering research, and education, in ways that have proved to be lasting and vital to the advancement of science and technology in this country.”

Stumbling over a shortfall

Bloch’s firm belief in the direction that U.S. science needed to take helped him overcome many obstacles. In an interview for an academic study on the history of the ERCs, Bloch was asked about complaints from center directors that NSF had set the bar too high. His reply was typically blunt: “Life is tough.”

But that self-assurance could also be a liability. Perhaps the most notable example was a 1987 study by his policy shop on whether the country was training enough scientists and engineers to meet the nation’s needs. The study, using historically high Ph.D. production rates in the mid-1980s as a baseline, predicted a massive shortfall beginning in the late 1980s and continuing for several years. The unspoken political message was clear: The United States is running out of scientists, so the budgets of NSF and other science agencies needed to grow. Many labor economists criticized the analysis as simplistic, however, and noted that the absence of any estimate of future demand—always a tricky business—made its projections worthless.

Bloch was always careful to use the word “shortfall” rather than “shortage.” But such semantic distinctions weren’t enough to ward off a congressional inquiry, begun after Bloch had left, which temporarily damaged the agency’s sterling reputation. (NSF directors are given a 6-year term, and President George H.W. Bush did not renew Bloch’s appointment after taking office.) In a tacit acknowledgement that the study was seriously flawed, Bloch’s successor ordered up a new study of the growing number of Ph.D. scientists who were unable to find jobs in their fields.

Bloch never admitted that NSF had stubbed its toe, however, and remained combative on the topic. In a 1992 note to the chair of the congressional committee that led the inquiry, for example, Bloch complained about not being invited to testify and then implied that the legislator was simply seeking publicity by holding the hearing. “Members of Congress, lawyers, and MBAs are not going to improve our competitive standing in the world,” Bloch wrote to Representative Howard Wolpe (D–MI). “Scientists and engineers just might.”

But Bloch’s legion of admirers greatly outnumbered his detractors. And his death last week gives them one last chance to express their gratitude to someone who came to the United States as a young man after being orphaned by the Holocaust, and shared his formidable talents with his adopted country.

“Erich was an extraordinary man,” Clutter says. “He promised me that we could change the world. And he was right, as usual.” Adds Keyworth, “Erich made his new country just a bit better than it would have been without him.”