News - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Q&A with Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall

| July 12, 2017

Sherwood-Randall Discusses Her Return to Harvard and Her Plans as a Senior Fellow at the Belfer Center

Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, former Deputy Secretary of Energy who has served in high-level positions at the White House and Pentagon, joined Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center as a non-resident Senior Fellow in July. Sherwood-Randall is returning to the Kennedy School where she previously collaborated with Ash Carter, the Belfer Center’s newly appointed director, and Graham Allison, who stepped down as Center director this month. We asked Sherwood-Randall to give us some background on her Harvard connections, why she returned, and what she hopes to accomplish as a Senior Fellow.

Q.  What led to your decision to return to Harvard and the Belfer Center?

My connection to the Kennedy School of Government (HKS) began when I was a Harvard undergraduate.  The faculty was luminous at that time – including Graham Allison, who was then the School’s dynamic young dean, along with Joe Nye, Bob Putnam, and the late Stanley Hoffmann. Because of their inspiration and mentoring, I will always consider Harvard to be my intellectual home.

I have subsequently worked twice at HKS, first with Graham Allison in founding the Strengthening Democratic Institutions Project from 1989-1992, and subsequently with Ash Carter and Bill Perry in building the joint Harvard-Stanford Preventive Defense Project after we served together in the Pentagon. In each instance, we engaged vital national security challenges, and I valued the opportunity to be based within an academic enterprise focused on the effective translation of ideas into action.

Looking ahead to my new role, I am honored to join Ash and his team at Belfer, building on Graham’s extraordinary legacy. Ash and I have tackled the toughest challenges during our years of service together in the Obama administration, and we are strong partners in identifying problems of consequence and developing a strategy and implementation plan for meeting them.

Q. What do you plan to work on as a Senior Fellow?

I’ve got quite a long list of topics I’d like to keep working on. Here’s a quick summary:

  • How can the U.S. stay ahead of the cutting science and technology edge in order to maintain our economic and military preeminence?
  • What role should nuclear weapons play in U.S. national security and, relatedly, how should we think about future requirements given the aggressive development of the Russian and Chinese arsenals? And what more can we do to prevent the further proliferation and use of WMD?
  • In light of the progress we have made over the last decade in advancing American energy security, what can we do to continue to strengthen our position as a nation, support our global allies and partners, and lead the world toward a clean energy future? 
  • Recognizing that the baton must continually be passed to new generations of talent, what can we do to recruit and retain the finest minds to work on these critical endeavors?

Q. What do you see as the biggest challenges at the intersection of energy security and national security?

There are several interconnected energy security challenges that we face today.

At the Department of Energy, I led our efforts to work with industry to secure the grid – which is more than 90 percent in private hands.  What we know is that there is a wide range of threats that could impede the delivery of power to the American people and, in a worst-case scenario, even disable our way of life.  These include extreme weather, natural disasters, and intentional physical and cyberattacks.  Because our energy systems are increasingly interconnected, our vulnerabilities to cyberattacks are expanding dramatically.

Climate change is also a threat multiplier in many dimensions – humanitarian, economic, political, and military – and if we step back from leadership on this front, rather than continue to make substantial progress, we will not only endanger the planet but we will cede our global leadership position and lose out on the huge economic opportunities at home and around the world that clean energy deployments could create for American entrepreneurs and U.S. workers.

Q. For a great deal of your career, you have played a leadership role in advancing nuclear security – for example in your pioneering work to persuade three former Soviet states to give up their nuclear weapons in the early 1990s. What are the key challenges facing us today in this space?

I think it’s important to begin with the elements of nuclear security that are entirely within our control.  We need to invest in our nuclear enterprise so that we have the infrastructure and the human capital required to maintain a safe, secure, and effective nuclear deterrent far out into the future. These are decadal commitments; you don’t just snap your fingers and generate the scientific and technical talent that you may need.

In parallel, we need to continue to lead aggressive efforts to take fissile materials off the global playing field.  This is an area in which the Kennedy School has done path-breaking work, going back to the Cooperative Denuclearization endeavor after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Belfer Center’s Gary Samore and my former White House colleague Laura Holgate were involved in shaping President Obama’s bold initiative on this front from the very start, and I had the privilege of serving as his Sherpa for the Nuclear Security Summit in 2014.  As long as nuclear weapons exist, we will have to do all that we can to prevent their proliferation.

Q. You said part of the reason you’re coming back to Harvard is to motivate young talent to pursue service in these fields. Could you explain why you’re focused on this “soft” challenge among the many “hard” security challenges you work on?

Attracting top young talent to service roles that contribute to the greater good, whether in national security or energy or other critical public arenas, will be essential to our future as a nation and a planet. Because HKS is the premier institution for training public leaders, it is the ideal place to make the case for tackling the hardest problems of our times – which I believe are the ones it is most worth working on!

For more about Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall:

  • Read the announcement of her appointment to the Belfer Center as a Senior Fellow
  • Listen to her on Pod Save the World (2017)
  • Watch her speak about cybersecurity at the Aspen Ideas Festival (2016)
  • Watch her speak about the 21st century energy transition at Colorado State University (2016)
  • View her video about Women in STEM (2015)
For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:Q&A with Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall.” News, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, July 12, 2017.