PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — John Savage, a Brown University computer scientist who helped found the University’s Department of Computer Science, has been chosen to be a special adviser to the State Department on cyber affairs.
Savage was selected as a Jefferson Science Fellow, a prestigious group of tenured academic scientists and engineers from U.S. institutions of higher learning who advise the State Department or the U.S. Agency for International Development. He is one of 10 fellows chosen this year and is the first person from the Brown community to be selected. He is also the first computer scientist to serve in the program, now in its sixth year.
Savage said he will lend his expertise to the department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research on protecting computer software and operating systems from hackers and other cyber threats. President Obama, in a speech last May, said the nation’s dependence on cyber security is “a matter of public safety and national security.”
Obama also said secure computerized systems were integral to America’s economic prosperity, noting one survey that reported cyber crime has cost Americans more than $8 billion in the last two years.
“We count on computer networks to deliver our oil and gas, our power and our water. We rely on them for public transportation and air traffic control. Yet we know that cyber intruders have probed our electrical grid and that in other countries cyber attacks have plunged entire cities into darkness,” Obama said.
Savage echoed the president’s remarks when he explained why he accepted the one-year fellowship. “Last year, it was reported in the press, more than half of all Department of Defense computers were infected by a virus,” he said. “They don’t know who’s controlling it, and for what purpose. That’s just one illustration that we’re extremely vulnerable, our computers are not safe. They’re hackable. It’s a really serious issue.”
Savage said his goal is to help the State Department and other federal agencies improve coordination of their response to hacking threats. “It’s a huge challenge logistically,” Savage said by telephone from Washington.
Savage joined Brown in 1967 as a faculty member in the Division of Engineering. Along with Andries van Dam and other colleagues, he helped found the Department of Computer Science in 1979 and served as the department’s second chair from 1985 until 1991. He currently does research on computational nanotechnology, the performance of multicore chips, and reliable computing with unreliable elements.
He said he’s long been interested in politics and has traveled the world, living in France (twice), England and the Netherlands, and visiting the former Soviet Union, Vietnam, China, Japan and a host of other countries. Savage’s wife has accompanied him to Washington, where she will teach and tutor middle school students in mathematics and science.
The Jefferson Science Fellows program was established in 2003 to elevate the role of science and technology in the formulation of U.S. foreign policy. Participants are chosen by independent panels of experts at the National Academies of Science, based on the applicants’ professional stature, recognition, experience, and ability to articulate science and technology issues to the general public.
Following the year in Washington, fellows remain on call as science advisers to the State Department for another five years.