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RAND Leader Looks Back on Career  

By Ann K. Williams
Lookout Staff

May 2, 2011 -- James A. Thomson – Jim to those who work with him – says he doesn't like to use a lot of words. He'd rather get to the point.

“I don't like adjectives and adverbs,” the President and CEO of RAND Corporation told the Lookout in April.

Thomson credits his New Hampshire upbringing for his straightforward personality. He said his father warned against boastfulness, saying that you don't have to say that you're good, “we know what you are.”

In fact, the casually-dressed leader of what may well be the world's most influential think-tank is an approachable, if laconic, man who's known to rub elbows with RAND workers in the lunchroom on a regular basis.

But Thomson's days at RAND are nearing an end. He has announced his plans to step down this fall after 22 years of leadership, leadership that has transformed the institution into an international presence with researchers studying an increasingly wide range of topics.

Thomson began his professional life as a physicist. After earning his Ph.D. at Purdue University, Thomson worked as a post-doc at the University of Wisconsin, but he said he “got kind of tired of...esoteric topics.”

So he plunged into the world of public policy, first working at the Pentagon, then joining the Carter Administration where he worked on the White House National Security Council under Zbigniew Brzezinski.

During his Washington years, Thomson earned a name for himself as an expert on European security. The United States and the Soviet Union and their allies were in a stand-off, with hundreds of thousands of troops on each side facing each other across the Iron Curtain.

“I was thrown into the swimming pool of policy,” Thomson said of his time in Washington.

Even now, Thomson grows animated as he recalls his days at the White House.

He told of cornering President Carter on an elevator where he had less than a minute to give the president talking points about a vote by the Italian Parliament before a press conference that was about to begin.

“Mr. President,” Thomson said, as he followed Carter down a hall and into the elevator. “You should do this and this and this,” Thomson recalled, making the point that his policy analysis wasn't just a theoretical exercise, it guided real actions and events. “It really was breaking news,” he said.

That sense of purpose has informed his leadership at RAND, Thomson said. Now policy papers include a heading of recommendations.

RAND hires Ph.D.'s, who are trained to “pursue knowledge for its own sake,” said Thomson. So it's taken a lot of hard work and a long time to institute a culture of pragmatism.

“I don't just want to know the facts,” he said, “I want to know what to do with [them].”

In 1981, Thomson came to RAND to do research and worked his way into the ranks of management, becoming Vice President in charge of a program that did work for the Air Force. When then-President Donald Rice left to become Secretary of the Air Force, Thomson became a prime candidate to lead the organization.

When he was interviewed in the summer of 1989, Thomson was asked what impending changes might affect RAND's future. He mentioned the possible fall of the Soviet Union.

He now says there was good reason to expect the massive geopolitical shift at some point – stresses in the Warsaw Pact, the state of the Soviet economy – but none to give weight to any specific predictions.

Thomson likened the situation to the spread of popular uprisings in the Middle East today.

“If you were asked did you know that someone built the fire,” you'd answer yes, he said. “But did you know when someone was going to throw the match?” You'd have to answer no.

With 80 per cent of RAND's funds coming from the Department of Defense as the 1990's began, it was time for the organization to diversify – again, Thomson said.

Since the 60's, RAND researchers had, in fact, branched out to study health, education, economic and labor policies, he said.

Thomson grew clearly irked when asked about the popular conception of RAND as a cold war, military think-tank.

“It's a myth,” he said. “Some people just missed the whole story...What they think isn't even true then.”

When he took the reins, Thomson hired a PR man who, after conducting his own research, came back and said “People think you're only a defense organization.”

Thomson suspects that if he hired someone new, he'd come back with the same message today. “All of the efforts we made haven't put a dent in this,” he said, but not for want of trying.

In the years Thomson has been at the helm, he has overseen growth in both the conceptual and geographic range of RAND's work.

Today, the organization sponsors research into such disparate fields as the causes of obesity, terrorism (a focus of RAND research long before 9/11), the response to Hurricane Katrina, and urban decay.

And RAND has expanded to the United Kingdom, Belgium, Mexico and in the Middle East, as well as Pittsburgh and Boston.

While still maintaining a productive relationship with the Pentagon – RAND research into resupply, repair and military processes has been credited with saving U.S. taxpayers billions of dollars – the organization has clients from around the world.

These day, the Middle East is a particularly compelling focus of objective research and analysis, Thomson said.

Some of RAND's clients there “don't know how big their unemployment rates are,” and need help shifting to privatization, he said.

Should Egypt get “a good's a great opportunity for us,” Thomson said.

This kind of analysis is something of a hobby of Thomson's.

His favorite leisure time activity is reading, and his favorite subject is, not surprisingly, public policy. He's also a fan of the news and American history.

“I know more than a physicist should know about the formation of the nation,” Thomson joked.

His understanding of the Federalist Papers informs his analysis of the increasing polarization of American politics, a polarization that may effect RAND's future.

As the legislative and executive branches of the federal government become increasingly partisan – “tribal” is one of Thomson's words for it – the non-partisan nature of RAND sometimes provokes suspicion among the country's policymakers.

“We don't belong to a tribe,” Thomson said. But party loyalists sometimes wonder “what side are you on.”

Actually the electorate – more than a third of which is politically independent – may become a better audience for RAND's factual analysis than those in government, he said.

Thinking about RAND's future has been Thomson's job for nearly a quarter of a century, as it will be in the near future.

In the months to come, he plans to help RAND find and train his successor.

Married, with three children and four grand-children who live in the area, Thomson then expects to spend a little more time in his second house in Las Vegas – and continue to read and think.


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