Service, science, and success

The chief scientist of the Air Force recalls his time at the Laboratory.

By Whitney Spivey | March 19, 2020

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In the Spring of 2017, Richard Joseph was feeling pretty content. He’d had a long and successful career working for Los Alamos, for the Air Force, and for himself as a national security consultant. Retirement— back in New Mexico—was just around the corner.

That’s when he got a phone call from a former student, Heather Wilson, whom he’d taught at the United States Air Force Academy in the early ’80s. Wilson had just been named Secretary of the Air Force, and she wanted to have lunch with her former professor and longtime friend.

So Joseph made the trip to the Pentagon, and that’s when Wilson asked Joseph to become the 36th chief scientist of the Air Force. “I said ‘no,’” Joseph remembers. “I said, Heather, I’ve perfected my life. I’m crazy about my wife, I have hobbies, I have grandchildren, and I do just the right amount of work every month.”

But deep-down Joseph knew he would reconsider. “I couldn’t pass up the opportunity of public service that involved working again for the Air Force and for one of my former students,” he says. “It doesn’t get any better than that.”

Nearly two years into the chief scientist job, Joseph stopped by Los Alamos to chat with NSS about his work, his time at the Laboratory, and why dealing with an adversary is a lot like playing ice hockey.

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Richard Joseph, chief scientist of the Air Force, uses a laser during a visit to Travis Air Force Base in California. Joseph serves as the chief scientific adviser to the Chief of Staff and Secretary of the Air Force, and he provides assessments on scientific and technical issues affecting the Air Force mission. Photo: U.S. Air Force/Louis Briscese

You first came to Los Alamos as a grad student in 1978. What were your first impressions of the Lab?

When I came here, I’d heard all about Los Alamos because I’d worked for a man, Bob Carter, who’d worked for [Nobel Laureate Enrico] Fermi during the Manhattan Project. Bob told me all about the Lab and all about Los Alamos the town and the area, so when I came here as a grad student, I came primed, and I sure wasn’t disappointed. It was an exciting place, and I couldn’t believe that anyone would actually get paid to work in a place like this.

The Laboratory was, to me, the perfect place to be. I was doing basic nuclear physics. I would sometimes find myself leaving the computing center late at night and just chuckling to myself like I’d made off with the crown jewels because this was not work—this was just fun.

The entire Lab seemed to be set up for scientists to do their work. I seemed to be able to learn from everybody. Experts were everywhere in this system, and they all were leaning forward to help make things happen.

After a few years teaching at the Air Force Academy, you returned to Los Alamos as a nuclear weapons development liaison officer with the Defense Nuclear Agency. What did you work on in this role?

I hit the ground here running because I already knew something about the Lab. I defined some experiments that had to do with neutral particle beams. It was 1981, and I sweet-talked beam time [experiment time on the accelerator]. In those days, that’s how you got programs started. You went around and you signed people up to take part. You didn’t have to have money or a charge code. A program manager gave me $10,000 to spend on experiments, and I spent almost all of it buying lead bricks for shielding.

In the 1990s—in support of Operation Desert Storm—you were part of a research program that developed light detection and ranging (LIDAR) for detecting biological agents. LIDAR is a remote sensing method that uses light in the form of a pulsed laser to measure distance. How did that program evolve?

A general showed up at the Lab, a brand new one-star whose name was John Jumper (he eventually became chief of staff of the Air Force). We showed him what our idea was, which was essentially to build a vehicle that could go out and look for clouds of bioagents using LIDAR.

Later, I drove John to the airport, and he said “Rich, I’m a fighter pilot, and here’s how I’d do this: put your system on an airplane and have a range of about 100 kilometers.” And then he said he’d like us to do this in 30 days.

"What motivates people at Los Alamos more than anything is the thought of doing something that nobody else has done before."

We didn’t really know what we were getting into. We started by writing down all the reasons why this was impossible. One person would present some impossible thing, and another person would say, “Well, that’s not impossible. I know how to do that.” What motivates people at Los Alamos more than anything is the thought of doing something that nobody else has done before.

After three weeks, we moved out to the Yuma Proving Ground. For a week, we mounted the laser on an airplane and tested it. The Army accepted it. At the end of 28 days, we had completed the whole project from start to finish. They were very long days, but the transformation in our people was just amazing. On the last day, an airplane picked us up, and I said to the flight attendant, “You wouldn’t believe that these people, for the past month, have been working 18- to 20-hour days.” She said “Oh my god, they’re so energetic.”

I described it later as “feeling the power of the machine.” I remember the first time I rode on a superbike motorcycle. A friend of mine had bought one of the first of the Kawasaki 500s. I got on it, and I almost went off the back of the bike, it accelerated so fast. I felt the power of the machine. This experience was feeling what this Laboratory could do. I thought, I’m never going to be satisfied with anything but that kind of performance.

How did working at Los Alamos prepare you for your current role as chief scientist of the Air Force?

I learned that when it comes to managing science, less is more. Scientists are generally motivated by curiosity. Part of every dollar that is spent in a place like this has to go for the satisfaction of spontaneous curiosity. And if we ever get to the point where we don’t allow that in laboratories, they are not laboratories anymore.

I learned the power of inspiration. Scientists may feel like they are hard-bitten rationalists, but the fact of the matter is they can be inspired, and they can be led. When General Jumper came here, one of our senior physicists said, “I think I would step off the roof of this building if he asked me to do it.” There was something about this guy that made you trust him right away. It’s a leadership quality.

I learned not everybody in a scientific institution is motivated by the same thing. Some people never want to be told what to do. Some people always want to be told what to do. You need to find the right place for people to thrive and to contribute.

I learned that support organizations can support. Instead of complaining about them, we need to find ways to bring them in. I learned that people who are supporting programs do better the closer they are to the program because they know why they are doing what they are doing.

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U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Michael Samuel (right) briefs Richard Joseph at Travis Air Force Base. Photo: U.S. Air Force/Louis Briscese

In your current role, you’ve developed a bold science and technology strategy for the Air Force. What does it say?

The science and technology community does better when it knows what the problems are. So, we wrote our strategy in terms of the capabilities we believe the Air Force needs. We want to be able to sense anything, anywhere we need to sense it, whenever we need to sense it. We need to be able to make sense of what we sense. We need to be able to analyze the data we take and understand it. And then we need to be able to communicate the data secretly wherever it needs to go, and we need to be able to deliver force where it needs to be delivered, when it needs to be delivered.

We want to be able to control time and complexity. We would like to be able to control the pace before a conflict and in a conflict—whether we want it to move faster to the detriment of an adversary or move more slowly to the detriment of an adversary’s plans. And in peacetime, we want to present the adversary with a complex set of things to worry about. We want to be where the adversary is going. We want to be where the adversary can’t be.

Years ago, I coached youth ice hockey in Los Alamos. And what I learned down at the rink in the canyon on cold winter nights was that youngsters who are still learning the game shoot at the goalie. But you shouldn’t shoot at the goalie; you should shoot where the goalie isn’t. Better yet, you shoot where the goalie can’t be. That’s the approach our strategy takes with the adversary: Shoot where the adversary can’t be. That’s the complexity part.

In addition to your technical work, you do a lot of mentoring. Why?

I believe that one of the roles of people in my stage of life and career is to help those who are coming up behind us. I spend a fair amount of time talking to people about their roles in their organizations and how to be more effective. I’m not the model of effectiveness, but if I can encourage people not to give up and instead to seek ways of getting things done, then that’s a contribution.