The Navigator Awards

As a non-profit successor to the congressional Office of Technology Assessment, the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies has sought to shepherd meaningful discussion of science and technology (S&T) by operating at the intersection of business and government. Its leadership possessed the foresight to recognize the potency of certain fields – including neurotechnology, nanotechnology, robotics, terrorism, and amphibious warfare – and has actively worked to promote smart policy that supported each.


Navigator Awards

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Within the past two decades, new threats emerged during an unprecedented period of American hegemony. Concurrently, scientific and technological capabilities burgeoned at an unprecedented rate. The increasing speed and accessibility of the Internet, along with e-mail, presented new opportunities in human communication, as well as challenges in government awareness. Global positioning satellites became fully operational, impacting everything from armed conflict to transportation. Animals were first cloned, raising serious questions about bioethics. Construction of the International Space Station established a permanent human presence beyond Earth’s atmosphere. Additionally, groundbreaking research on DNA had a revolutionary effect on the criminal justice system. Citizens were well aware of these remarkable developments, but few were concerned with the policy that shaped them. It was in this frenetic world of technology development that the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies was born. 

In its nascent years, the Institute became accustomed to exercising its independence. It aspired to identify new ways to highlight the growing need for shrewd and perceptive policy. At the turn of the millennium, the Institute’s founders believed that there ought to be an “Academy Awards” event for S&T and national security.

“At the time, there was not enough appreciation for science and technology policy that addressed the rapidly evolving challenges of our time,” said longtime Institute CEO and Chairman, Mike Swetnam. “We concluded that if the US is going to be the leader in S&T, then someone should recognize individuals who boldly champion their advancement. Additionally, honoring these bold innovators would raise awareness of the Potomac Institute’s unique mission as a non-partisan, non-profit think tank.”

Fifteen years and ten banquets later, the Navigator Awards have become a treasured and respected event in influential circles around Washington, DC. Most classes comprise at least one awardee from the legislative branch, one from the executive, and another from the private sector. Past honorees represent a remarkable range of contributions to S&T policy: of over 30 recipients, ten have been sitting Members of Congress; ten have headed federal departments or agencies; and four have been general or flag officers in the military. They include leaders in industry, from a founder of a defense-contracting firm to a pioneer in unmanned aviation. One past awardee is even a former editor-in-chief of a popular scientific publication.

Among the distinguished honorees over the years, awards have gone to the 29th Commandant of the US Marine Corps, General Alfred Gray, Jr. (2000); former Director of the National Security Agency, General Keith Alexander, USA (2006); former Science Adviser to the President and Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, John Marburger; CEO of Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) and CEO of Tesla Motors, Elon Musk (2010); and the current Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper (2012).

Since the inaugural event in 2000, the Navigator Awards have been held in the ballroom of the famous Willard Inter-Continental hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue. A black tie affair, it is attended by over 250 leading figures in industry and government. The honorees’ acceptance speeches usually prove stimulating, as they highlight the reciprocal, complementary, and mutually dependent relationship of S&T and national policy. Guests then engage in hearty conversation over dinner.

Dr. Jim Richardson, a Senior Fellow at the Institute, says that “...the uniqueness of this award is that it looks across all of science, technology, government, and industry. It is a much more holistic look at accomplishments.” This is in distinction to the fact that “The recognition of work done in science and technology is often channeled by scientific area.”

The physical award is a representation of the recipient’s achievements in leadership. One of the earliest, most foundational inventions in human history is timekeeping, upon which so much of society is based: from ancient agriculture to the functioning of our contemporary world. As such, the Navigator Award is a ship’s gimbaled clock – a device that allowed, in addition to timekeeping, for celestial navigation. The gadget’s creation revolutionized travel and commerce by allowing mankind to venture well beyond its familiar shores.

Like ships’ captains of old, recipients of a Navigator Award have demonstrated remarkable leadership, audacity, and patriotism. The Institute, now celebrating its 20th anniversary, has worked alongside these titans of policy to produce meaningful and enduring solutions to national S&T challenges.

The S&T developments of the late 1990s seem distant and insignificant compared to today’s concerns. The haste and power of the Internet has grown exponentially, as its access now reaches across every continent and country, available to friend and foe alike. Ethical apprehensions have evolved from cloning to the implications of detailed genetic engineering. Research and development of exascale computing provides convincing evidence that singular machine intelligence is within our grasp. Neuroscientists continue to unlock the human brain’s intricate complexities, expanding technological possibilities in fields as diverse as medicine, economics, and defense.

Not only do breakthroughs in any of these areas carry the potential to revolutionize society, but they also raise questions regarding the very nature of human identity. In this context, the Navigator Awards distinguish those who have intrepidly met these challenges and who have striven to improve our nation’s policies to cope with the demands of the future from a position of confidence and strength.

The Institute is pleased to announce the 2015 Class of Navigator Awardees.

Navigator Awards

Congressman Mac Thornberry

Congressman Mac Thornberry1 has represented Texas’ 13th District since 1995, and currently serves as Chairman of the House Committee on Armed Services (HASC). Before his election to Congress, Thornberry worked on the personal staffs of two Texas Congressmen, and later at the Department of State during the Reagan Administration. After practicing law in Amarillo for several years, he decided to run for federal office.

Since his days as a staffer, Thornberry has been a fervent guardian of our national security and a diligent student of military applications of S&T. His expertise on matters in defense, intelligence, and foreign affairs is extensive and respected. Thornberry has previously served on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, as well as the Select Committee on Homeland Security. Additionally, the Congressman chaired the Congressional Task Force on Cyber Security in 2011 and 2012.

As Chairman of HASC, Thornberry has directed a comprehensive defense policy reform effort. Though it has yet to be enacted, the Fiscal Year 2016 National Defense Authorization Act will address a wide array of issues, including healthcare, pay, and retirement – most of which have achieved bipartisan accord. Most importantly, though, the Chairman is committed to addressing an outdated and obsolete defense acquisition process that hampers our warfighters and severely limits federal research and development. His leadership on acquisition reform is critical to developing an agile and lethal force over the next several decades.

It is a credit to his diplomatic disposition that acquisition reform has moved forward in Congress. Indeed, Thornberry consulted all actors in the acquisition process: defense contractors, civilian and uniformed pro- gram managers, military customers, and battlefield operators of the technology.2 Of note, the Chairman has also requested recommendations from the think tank community and academia, ensuring that research and development concerns are fully addressed. In an era of crippling partisan polarization, the Chairman has worked closely with colleagues from across the aisle to achieve consensus-driven solutions.

Thornberry has enthusiastically supported S&T matters for three decades on Capitol Hill. His acquisition reform efforts are especially emblematic of his intrepid nature and reflect a steadfast commitment to maintaining America’s strategic advantage and technological edge in a dynamic world.

Mr. Alan Shaffer

Alan Shaffer3currently serves as Director of the NATO Collaboration Support Office in France, where he is responsible for coordinating and synchronizing S&T between the alliance’s member states and partner nations. His NATO network comprises of more than 3,000 scientists.

Shaffer has served his country for over four decades, starting with the Reserve Officer Training Corps during undergraduate study. His 24-year career in the US Air Force included assignments in command, meteorology, intelligence, and acquisition oversight in locations accross the US and overseas, including direct support of an Army unit during Operation DESERT STORM.

After leaving the military, Shaffer was appointed to the Senior Executive Service, filling positions in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Prior to accepting his current position with NATO just months ago, he was the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering (ASD(R&E)) for eight years, beginning in 2007. Six of those eight years were spent as Acting ASD(R&E). During that time, Shaffer oversaw $25 billion per year in the DoD’s Research, Development, Test, and Evaluation programs. Additionally, he directed several task forces, including those on energy security and appraisal of select facilities in the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure.

However, Shaffer’s proudest accomplishment is the development of the Mine Resistant Ambush Protection (MRAP) vehicle, for which he served as director of its task force from 2007 to 2012. In a four-year span, 27,000 MRAPs were delivered to the battlefield, providing unprecedented security for warfighters.

“I do not know how many lives we saved,” said Shaffer in a seminar at the Institute in May. “I would say that the biggest highlights of my career have been when a service member or a parent have come up to me and said, “Thank you, your MRAP saved my life,” or “Thank you, your MRAP saved my child’s life.’ We all worked pretty long days during that time, but when you are saving lives, it is important.”4

Throughout his distinguished career, Shaffer has demonstrated proficiency and familiarity with a broad collection of technologies that are vital to national security. His unquestioned leadership and commitment to S&T advancements have significantly contributed to our military’s current and future preparedness.

Dr. David Brin

One of the most eclectic individuals one could ever encounter, Dr. David Brin5 has based his entire career around cultivating his passions for creativity and curiosity. A scientist by training, Brin holds a Ph.D. in astrophysics from the University of California at San Diego, where he studied under a Nobel Prize recipient. He was a postdoctoral fellow at the California Space Institute and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Brin is best known for his novels, of which several have been New York Times best sellers and winners of a variety of awards. At least a dozen have been translated into more than twenty languages. As a futurist, Brin’s books often construct unconventional settings and raise serious questions about the nature of humanity, the fate of Earth, and other cosmic considerations. His works, which date to the 1980s, have eerily and perceptively foreshadowed topics like climate change, the Internet, and cyber security in the digital age.

“Change is the core attribute of our era,” Brin said at a seminar at the Institute in 2013. “I deal with it daily, wearing both my 'hat' as a science fiction author and in my work as a scientist and technology pundit. Instability can be both exciting and unnerving. We are riding – surfing – upon a tsunami of changes, and it does little good to peer myopically just one year ahead…The future is coming, and the future’s future after that! It will best be dealt with in clear-eyed calm and courage.”6

Brin serves on a diverse assortment of advisory committees concerning issues such as national security, nanotechnology, astronomy, calculated prediction, space exploration, and the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence. His ongoing scientific projects engage with everything from astronautics to optics to human evolution, and his patents involve improving human communication over the Internet. Additionally, Brin served as an “Oracle” in a six-month US Air Force program that sought insight into future force structure, logistics, emerging threats, and combat.

For decades, Brin has fostered his brilliance, ingenuity, and imagination – all with a dose of endearing humor – sparking meaningful discussion of S&T issues. His novels challenge the reader to imagine the trepidations and opportunities of the future, forcing consideration of how to best prepare for them in the present. A fascinating mixture of art and science, his works – both fiction and non-fiction – have made a profound impact upon his nation and its government’s policies.

Congratulations and many thanks to this year’s awardees.


1. US Congressman Mac Thornberry official biography.
2. Armed Services Committee, Thornberry/Smith Introduce DOD Ac- quisition Reform Bill. Mar 25 2015.
3. Mr. Alan Shaffer biography, S&T Organization Collaboration Support Office.
4. CReST Bold Ideas Seminar: “Lessons Learned from the Office of the Secretary of Defense.”
5. David Brin website, biography.
6. CReST Bold Ideas Seminar: “Featuring David Brin.”



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