Lewis Branscomb, Champion of Science Across Fields, Dies at 96

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As the Cold War was waning, the physicist Lewis Branscomb feared that America’s economic and scientific superiority was in jeopardy. Declining scientific literacy and critical thinking in American education, he believed, could have disastrous consequences for the country.

Students, he told “The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour” on PBS in 1986, “don’t need to know a lot of facts about science, but they really do need to understand how to think in the way scientists think — that is, in a problem-solving approach, given a complex environment within which to make decisions.”

Whether in academia, private industry or government, Dr. Branscomb made it his job to push for the advancement of science and give it a bigger role in public policy. He held out hope for a brighter future through technology, but only if scientists and policymakers could get the public behind the idea.

Dr. Branscomb, who worked at the nexus of science, technology, policy and business throughout his career, died on May 31 at a care facility in Redwood City, Calif., his son, Harvie, said. He was 96.

Dr. Branscomb led the National Bureau of Standards (now the National Institute of Standards and Technology), the federal government’s authoritative standards and measurements laboratory, from 1969 to 1972. He later served as IBM’s chief scientist, was a professor at Harvard University, wrote hundreds of papers and wrote or contributed to about a dozen books.

Dr. Branscomb started working for the government in the wake of World War II, and almost six decades later advised the Senate on America’s vulnerabilities after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

In the interim, he developed basic scientific techniques and refined measurements at the National Bureau of Standards; helped IBM turn its computers from hulking mainframes, which could cost more than an automobile, into something that could fit in a home office; and advised multiple presidents, including Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard M. Nixon and Ronald Reagan, on policy matters, particularly the space program.

Irving Wladawsky-Berger, a former IBM researcher and executive, said in a phone interview that Dr. Branscomb played a major role at the company when it was leading the development of technology like computer memory and storage, networking products and semiconductors. Dr. Branscomb “had the vision of making sure that IBM was a world class research company,” he said.

Dr. Branscomb called for technological growth to be driven as much by private industry as by the Defense Department and other government agencies, and expressed concern that the end of the space race with the Soviet Union had led to a diminished NASA.

“Where once NASA challenged industry to go beyond what any had done before,” he said in testimony before Congress in 1991, “ today, the best commercial firms take more risk, stretch their technology further, reach for levels of performance and reliability that NASA no longer achieves or even expects.”

It fell to scientists to rekindle society’s enthusiasm for their work, Dr. Branscomb wrote in “Confessions of a Technophile” (1995), arguing that it was up to the scientific community “to acknowledge the legitimacy of the public’s desire to participate, however superficially, in the excitement of new discovery.”

Lewis McAdory Branscomb was born on Aug. 17, 1926, in Asheville, N.C., to Harvie and Margaret (Vaughan) Branscomb. His father was the dean of the theology school and the library director at Duke University and then the chancellor of Vanderbilt University in Nashville. His mother oversaw the planting of magnolia trees across the Vanderbilt campus and was memorialized with a statue there.

A promising student from a young age, Lewis left high school early and received an accelerated education at Duke as part of a Navy program to train future scientists.

He earned a bachelor’s degree in physics by 19, then served as an officer in the Naval Reserve. He left Naval duty in 1946 to enroll at Harvard, where he earned his master’s degree a year later and his doctorate in 1949.

In 1951, Dr. Branscomb became a research physicist studying the structure and spectra of molecular and atomic negative ions for the National Bureau of Standards, an arm of the Commerce Department and one of the oldest federal physical science research laboratories.

In the early 1960s he moved from Washington to Boulder, Col., where he helped establish the Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics, now known as JILA, a collaboration between the Bureau of Standards and the University of Colorado that sought to advance astrophysical research. He later served as the institute’s chair.

He joined President Johnson’s Science Advisory Committee in the mid-1960s, as the Apollo program was preparing to land astronauts on the moon in 1969. That year, President Nixon named him the Bureau of Standards’ director, a position he held until he left for IBM in 1972.

He was IBM’s chief scientist until 1986, a period when the company made components for the space shuttle, built computer mainframes and entered the personal computer market against competitors like Apple and Tandy.

In 1980, Dr. Branscomb became the chairman of the National Science Board, which establishes the policies of the National Science Foundation and advises Congress and the president. He held that position until 1984.

Dr. Branscomb left IBM to become a professor and the director of the Science, Technology and Public Policy Program at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. He also served on boards of corporations like Mobil and General Foods.

Books he wrote and edited include “Empowering Technology: Implementing a U.S. Policy” (1993) and “Making the Nation Safer: The Role of Science and Technology in Countering Terrorism” (2002, with Richard Klausner and others).

Dr. Branscomb married Margaret Anne Wells, a lawyer and expert on computer communications, in the early 1950s. She died in 1997.

In 2005 he married Constance Hammond Mullin, with whom he lived for many years in the La Jolla section of San Diego. She survives him.

In addition to his wife and son, his survivors include a daughter, K.C. Kelley; three stepchildren, Stephen J. Mullin, Keith Mullin and Laura Thompson; and a granddaughter.

In the preface to “Confessions of a Technophile” Dr. Branscomb described himself as an “incurable optimist” who had been “driven all my life by a deep conviction that bright prospects for humankind depend on the wise and creative uses of technology.”

He added in a footnote that he was an optimist not by logic but “by assertion.”

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