Skip to main content

In Memoriam: Calit2 Advisory Board Member Phil Smith (1932-2014)


  • Doug Ramsey

Published Date


  • Doug Ramsey

Share This:

Article Content

From left, Calit2's Larry Smarr with Philip Smith in Santa Fe, NM, in 2006.

Philip M. Smith, the founding co-chair of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2) Advisory Board, passed away on February 16, 2014, after a brief illness.

Smith was one of the most experienced science policy professionals in the United States, having served in Washington, DC during every administration from Eisenhower to Clinton. In the 1950s he trained as a geologist and conducted research in Greenland and Antarctica, leading to his directing large-scale international research programs in the geophysical sciences at the National Science Foundation (NSF) in the 1960s and 1970s. Smith later served as Associate Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) for Natural Resources, Energy and Science from 1975 to 1981, working closely with Frank Press, who was President Carter’s science advisor and director of OSTP. Following this, Smith became Executive Director of the National Research Council for 12 years, where he continued his collaboration with Frank Press, the President of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) from 1981 to 1993. Smith participated in many other public and private organizations, including as a member of the Board of Directors for Aurora Flight Sciences.

Smith is remembered fondly by national science leaders:

  • Frank Press, former President’s Science Advisor and President of the NAS: “Phil’s passing is a tragic loss of my best friend and closest partner in 16 years of professional activities in the White House and National Academy of Sciences. I couldn't have managed without him.”
  • Dick Atkinson, former NSF Director, UC San Diego Chancellor, and UC President: “Phil Smith played a key role in the early development of the National Science Foundation and in establishing critical policy that defined the Foundation's future. He played similar roles in the science office of the White House and later at the National Research Council. American science is indebted to Phil for his leadership at critical periods in our nation's history.”
  • Ralph Cicerone, former Chancellor of UC Irvine (UCI), serving as co-PI on the Calit2 proposal in 2000, and now President of the National Academy of Sciences: “Phil had an amazing ability to add value, both to established institutions inside and outside of government (OSTP, NSF, the NAS), while also being capable of formulating and evaluating ideas in totally new spheres like Calit2. Few people can preserve and enhance the value of established institutions while also nurturing start-ups.”
  • Bruce Darling, Executive Officer, National Academy of Sciences and National Research Council: “Phil was one of the nation's leading science policy experts, with a deep historical perspective about how science, engineering and medicine have shaped our nation and our lives. He had a clear perspective about how the federal government should foster their vitality to ensure that the nation will benefit in the future as it has in the past. As a result, his advice was sought by leading scientists and policy makers for more than fifty years. His role was crucial to the advancement of knowledge and translating it into productive economic, health, and national security benefits for the American people.”

Calit2's founding director Larry Smarr, a professor of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of California, San Diego, had a long-lasting relation with Smith. "I first met Phil while serving on an NAS committee (the “Zare Report”) to determine whether NSF should initiate its later, highly successful Science and Technology Centers program. For the next 25 years, Phil served as my mentor, with my making innumerable trips to seek Phil's advice in his two homes: Washington, DC, and Santa Fe, NM. Phil served as the Chair of the National Center for Supercomputing Applications External Advisory Council for 15 years while I was Director there. After I moved to UC San Diego, I asked Phil to become the co-chair of the Calit2 Advisory Board along with Forest Baskett, now a General Partner at NEA."

In his role as Advisory Board co-chair, Smith worked closely with the UCSD and UCI Chancellors on strategic planning for Calit2.

  • Bob Dynes, former UC San Diego Chancellor and UC President, as well as co-PI on the Calit2 proposal: “Phil was a smart, generous, gentle, national treasure. He helped us enormously by crafting and then advising Calit2. We will all miss him.”
  • Marye Anne Fox, UC San Diego Chancellor after Dynes, and a National Medal of Science winner: “I knew him from his work at the Academy, where he was simply outstanding. Science has benefitted in so many ways from his contributions. He was largely responsible, working with Calit2 directors, for making Calit2 viable.”
  • Michael Drake, UC Irvine Chancellor: "Calit2 was from the beginning a bold idea - two strong universities collaborating to push the envelope of telecommunications and technology research. It needed experienced, strong, respected and above all wise Advisory Board leadership to guide it through its nascency. Phil was all of these things, and more. Our success is due in large part to the detailed, focused and insightful advice he provided. Phil was a wonderful scientist, mentor to a generation, and a great friend. He will be missed."

The Calit2 Division Directors and Chief of Staff worked closely with Smith and look back fondly on his sage advice:

  • Ramesh Rao, Calit2 UC San Diego Division (Qualcomm Institute) Director: "I remember Phil for his unwavering advocacy of societally transformative scientific themes. Simultaneously, he displayed a knack for engaging with key academic leaders in ways that advanced our institutional standing. I am certain that the seeds he planted at Calit2 in our early years will continue to bear fruit in the years ahead."
  • GP Li, Calit2 UC Irvine Division Director: “Phil has been a great mentor to us. His wisdom and experience guided us through difficult times for the university and nation in supporting research. He will be greatly missed.”
  • Jerry Sheehan, Calit2 Chief of Staff: “I had the privilege of knowing and working with Phil Smith for over 15 years, both at NCSA and then Calit2. He embodied the spirit of the explorer who, throughout his life, pushed into new frontiers ranging from polar exploration to science and technology. Phil was a public servant who devoted his professional career to creating the foundation for some of America's leading scientific organizations. He devoted his personal time to helping expand opportunities for others and improving his community. He quite simply made us all better. He was the ultimate guide, and while our journey continues today, we feel the loss of a great leader, mentor, and friend.”

Working closely with Smith over the last 13 years were his fellow Calit2 Advisory Board members. His special abilities were perhaps captured best by board member Mark Anderson, CEO of Strategic News Service and Founding Chair of the Future in Review Conference: “Phil had a delightful ability to see through all of the smoke and mirrors, whether scientific, logical, or those presented by human nature, and to understand the most complex problems in a structured, straightforward way. No matter how convoluted a technical or policy issue, he seemed able to immediately see it in its parts, and he found a useful path for the rest of us to follow in doing the great work he so passionately believed in. In this pursuit, it was as though he was all spirit and no ego: it didn't matter whose idea was being considered, or where it came from. If it moved the world, or our projects, along, he immediately grasped it and integrated it into the whole of our efforts. He was a wonderful human being, with a delightful sense of humor. I will miss him and his contributions to our shared efforts.”

Many other members of the Calit2 Advisory Board (AB) had similar thoughts:

  • Anne Petersen, current AB chair and former Deputy Director of NSF: “He was very special and incredibly generous. I, we, and the world will miss him!”
  • Drew Senyei, current AB co-chair and Managing Director, Enterprise Partners Venture Capital: "We were very fortunate to have Phil's mentorship and guidance help steer Calit2's first successful decade. His influence will endure well into the future."
  • Forest Baskett, former AB co-chair with Smith and General Partner, New Enterprise Associates: "I was fortunate to meet Phil in late 2000 when Larry started Calit2, and even more fortunate to work with him on that project for the next 10 years. We became fast friends. His professional advice was always insightful and often profound. He gave me advice and solace during a difficult period in my personal life as well. The Grand Canyon raft trips he organized for us were some of the greatest experiences one could ever have. His life was extraordinarily rich and full, and that richness and fullness spilled out onto all of his friends and colleagues. We will all miss him deeply."
  • Vint Cerf, Vice President and Chief Internet Evangelist, Google: “Phil was indispensable to the Calit2 efforts in so many ways. HIs persistent, thoughtful and calm leadership of the Calit2 Advisory Board, in addition to his service as chair of the NCSA External Advisory Council, inspired us all to a level of professionalism and dedication that we might not have achieved without his urging. I will miss his infectious enthusiasm for Calit2 and his steady hand in challenging times. He was indeed a most capable counselor to all of us.”
  • Linda Hill, Professor of Business Administration, Harvard Business School: "I got to know Phil when I began to do research on Calit2. He was very generous with his time and insights on what it takes to build a vibrant intellectual community prepared to address the critical challenges and promising opportunities of our times. His curiosity and openness to learning were apparent from our first meeting. He was both warm and tough-minded, a powerful combination. We have lost someone dedicated to ensuring that our nation has the talent and resources required to remain an innovative powerhouse."
  • Andrew Viterbi, President of the Viterbi Group, LLC: “Phil was a complete gentleman and great leader.”
  • Telle Whitney, President and CEO, Anita Borg Institute: “I have fond memories of my interactions with Phil at the Calit2 board meetings; he was always welcoming and engaging.”
  • Joe Sussman, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Engineering Systems, MIT: “I knew Phil only causally when he recruited me to the Calit2 Advisory Board. But my admiration for him grew continuously as I saw the leadership ability he brought to the task. He will be missed.”
  • Kathi Vian, Distinguished Fellow, Institute for the Future: “Like others, I'll remember Phil as a man of grace and generosity, with a commitment to the vision of Calit2 and to the future. May his spirit live on in all that is Calit2.”
  • Dennis Lettenmaier, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of Washington: "I was sorry to hear of Phil's passing. I always found him to be highly engaged, and encouraging on various levels. In my case, I especially appreciated him letting me know that my opinions were valued early in my term on the Advisory Board, when I wasn't quite sure where I fit in. Regardless of how he felt about things, he was always a complete gentleman."

What made Smith so unusual was that, in addition to his 60 years in science policy, he was a perfect bridge between C. P. Snow’s “Two Cultures” of sciences/engineering and the humanities/arts through his lifelong engagement with both. As a collector and mentor of many contemporary artists, he developed a major personal collection. Later in life he began to give away large segments of his collection, for instance to found the Nampeyo :: Namingha – Tradition and Transition exhibit at the Museum of Northern Arizona. Smith was a great devotee of the theatre and made numerous trips to New York and London to see a wide range of peformances. As a result, he was a deeply insightful advisor to Calit2’s projects in the digital arts.

Similarly, Phil Smith’s lifetime of outdoor adventures provided a unique perspective on Calit2 projects in the digital environment. In his early years Smith was active in cave exploration and mountaineering, and for five decades he was an avid river-runner on the Green-Colorado River System. In 1958, he conceived and helped plan the first and only successful upriver jet boat trip through the Grand Canyon in 1960.

Smith shared these immersive experiences with Smarr and co-chairs of the Calit2 Advisory Board Forest Baskett and Anne Petersen in the “Friends of Phil” expeditions he led to the Grand Canyon in September 2007 (a two-week rubber raft trip down the Colorado river through 200 rapids) and on a National Geographic ship to the Galápagos Islands in July 2012.

Calit2's Smarr reminisced: "Phil’s all-too-early departure leaves a large hole in many of our hearts. He was the quintessential public servant, a role which is so essential and yet filled so rarely at the level Phil Smith served. We deeply miss him."

Share This:

Category navigation with Social links