The chemist who builds research programmes.
It's not often that a scientific career reaches beyond one's own discipline. But William Harris has helped to transform scientific infrastructures around the world: a commitment to science and education is the cornerstone of his career. (See CV)
A chemistry professor at William and Mary College in Williamsburg, Virginia, first brought the subject to life for Harris, who went on to do graduate work in spectroscopy at the University of South Carolina (USC) and then to teach at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina. He learnt about biology on a sabbatical at the National Institutes of Health, where he used spectroscopy with biophysicist Ira Levin. A sabbatical at the National Science Foundation (NSF) led to a job as programme director in physical chemistry.
By the end of his 18 years at the NSF, Harris was director of mathematical and physical sciences, overseeing a $750-million annual budget. In addition to establishing 24 science and technology centres to support interdisciplinary research, his greatest satisfaction came from developing the research programme for undergraduates in the chemistry division — which became a standard throughout the NSF divisions. “I became a person who could help gifted scientists do their science better,” says Harris of his ability to remove barriers to scientific work.
Although he calls his position at the NSF “the best job I ever had”, Columbia University offered an opportunity that he couldn't refuse — to head Biosphere 2, an enclosed environmental system that aroused controversy about how self-contained it really was. Harris's interest in climate problems was fired by Columbia's ambitious agenda for its Earth Institute experiment. “It was a challenge to do something that hadn't been done before — and make an important education statement in the process,” he says.
After a brief stint back at USC, as vice-president for research, Harris was head-hunted to lead Science Foundation Ireland. In five short years, he's built Ireland's research — engaging its universities in previously uncultivated areas such as biotechnology, and attracting distinguished scientists from the Max Planck Institutes and Bell Labs to set up research centres. He has been asked to advise the European Commission, China and India on developing their scientific economics.
But it is to Arizona that Harris moves next. He will soon head Science Foundation Arizona, a new non-profit institute dedicated to doing for Arizona what he has done for Ireland — build the new research programmes from the ground.
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Gewin, V. William Harris, president and chief executive, Science Foundation Arizona. Nature 441, 124 (2006). https://doi.org/10.1038/nj7089-124a