- By Judi Hasson
- May 26, 2003
Charles McQueary looks at life through the prism of an engineer. Every problem has an answer, he says — even the most difficult ones.
And it's a good thing that McQueary, a former executive at General Dynamics Advanced Technology Systems and Bell Laboratories, is an optimist — because he's embarking on the toughest job of his long career.
As undersecretary for the Homeland Security Department's Science and Technology Directorate, he must identify and develop technologies to fight terrorism and manage the millions of dollars tapped for research and development (R&D).
"We're still working on the plan," he said in an interview from his sparsely decorated office, into which he had recently moved. "It will take quite a bit of time to understand what capacities exist."
But McQueary, who has a doctorate in engineering mechanics, is moving at warp speed to make it happen. Not a day goes by when he isn't talking to people in the sciences and building bridges with private industry and the academic community to find new ideas. He's not interested in the latest gadgets and gizmos a company may have. He's seeking bigger and broader solutions to problems that may still be unidentified.
McQueary likens his task to putting a man on the moon — a government/private-sector partnership that made history in 1969 when astronaut Neil Armstrong declared, "The Eagle has landed."
These days, McQueary is often on the road talking about what he hopes to accomplish. He recently attended a seminar sponsored by four prestigious Pennsylvania universities — Carnegie Mellon, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania State University — that are working together to develop technologies to fight terrorism.
At an April meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, McQueary told the gathering that the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks "didn't make us more vulnerable, but made us more aware of our vulnerabilities."
Testifying before Congress last month, he said, "The most important mission for the Science and Technology Directorate is to develop and deploy cutting-edge technologies and new capabilities so that the dedicated men and women who serve to secure our homeland can perform their jobs more effectively and efficiently — they are my customers."
So, if Joe Q. Contractor has a good idea, how does he get it in front of McQueary?
"Well, Joe has already called," McQueary replied.
But not to worry, there are other ways to get his attention. The Science and Technology Directorate recently launched a Web site that includes an e-mail address (email@example.com) for vendors to submit their ideas. The messages are sent to the right deputy, and sometimes McQueary himself responds.
Some of them are "top-notch ideas. Others, we're simply not interested in," McQueary said.
But he is more than just a booster for scientific initiatives. With a proposed budget of more than $800 million for R&D in fiscal 2004, McQueary is in charge of developing the strategies and policies to use the money efficiently to detect deadly attacks before they happen.
His top priority is bioterrorism because a small amount of material can cause great damage, he said.
Challenge is nothing new for McQueary, a retired defense industry executive who cut his teeth in the telecommunications world and led efforts to lay thousands of miles of fiber-optic cables for both military and commercial use as a director for Bell Labs.
For many years, it was highly classified work in difficult-to-accomplish programs. But now people use fiber optics in everyday life, and the Defense Department uses it as an integral part of its communications network, he said.
In 1997, McQueary became president of General Dynamics Advanced Technology Systems. He thought it would be his last job, but then Sept. 11 spurred the urgency to throw up a protective screen around the United States. Since then, he has been tapped to harness the nation's know-how and encourage R&D.
McQueary promised at his Senate confirmation hearing that he would work closely with other federal agencies, not to mention state and local governments, to create a "disciplined and efficient systems engineering process that delivers the appropriate homeland security capabilities as efficiently as possible, when and where they are needed."
The business world is happy he is there. Ralph Wyndrum, who worked with McQueary at Bell Labs and is vice president for technology policy at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, said McQueary has excellent management skills.
"He is an exquisitely good manager, really talented," Wyndrum said. "His breadth of knowledge is considerable — engineering, physics, all the things he will need for his new job."