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

Remembering Robert (Bob) Frosch

| Jan. 25, 2021

Robert A. (Bob) Frosch, a beloved colleague, mentor, and friend of many in the Belfer Center community, passed away December 30, 2020. He was 92. 

Bob joined the Belfer Center as a Senior Fellow in 1993 following his retirement as Vice President for Research at GM. He continued to contribute his expertise to the Center until his passing. 

Bob’s notable career also included serving as Deputy Director of ARPA, Assistant Secretary of the Navy for R&D, Assistant Executive Director at UNEP, Associate Director for Applied Oceanography at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and Administrator of NASA. Having earned his PhD in physics from Columbia in 1952, he went on to became a member of the National Academy of Engineering, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a Foreign Member of the UK Royal Academy of Engineering, and a fellow or member of a number of professional societies. 

News of Bob’s passing has saddened all of us at the Belfer Center and the broader Harvard community. Below, colleagues, friends, and acquaintances remember Bob and share their memories, stories, and special times with him.

A memorial service is planned for Fall 2021.

Please send additional remembrances you would like to have added to:

Ash Carter (Harvard Kennedy School, Belfer Center Director)

“Bob joined the Center’s burgeoning efforts to improve the US R&D system as the Cold War ended, Japan rose, and the U.S. was feared to have lost its edge. The then-new phenomena of software engineering, just-in-time manufacturing, and venture capital were replacing the big-company-lab plus government systems that Bob knew so well from GM, NASA, and his other jobs. Bob was an invaluable contributor to the Center’s efforts to craft solutions to the new dilemmas.  He’s an important part of our heritage.”

John P. Holdren (Harvard Kennedy School, Science, Technology, and Public Policy Program Co-Director)

“Bob was a Senior Fellow at BCSIA starting in 1993, after an exemplary career in leadership at ARPA, Navy R&D, UNEP, NASA, and GM. He was also Associate Director for Applied Oceanography at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, where he continued his involvement. Bob’s many recognitions included the prestigious National Academy of Engineering’s Arthur M. Bouche Award, which he received in 2003 for ‘a career of advances in aerospace and automotive technology, and industrial ecology; and for administration of R&D in industry, government, and academia.’

A font of insights about how research, development, and innovation work (or don’t), Bob was a mentor to me and many others and a colleague much-loved by all who knew him. He was as good-natured and witty as he was brilliant. At BCSIA he worked particularly closely with the Science, Technology, and Public Policy Program and the Environment and Natural Resources Program. During his Harvard years, he and his beloved wife Jessica made their main home in Falmouth on Cape Cod. After her unexpected passing in 2016, a year short of their sixtieth anniversary, he moved to western Massachusetts to be near their two daughters.

A true giant in technology for public purpose, Bob will be deeply missed.”

Laura Diaz Anadon (University of Cambridge)

“This is really very sad news.  Bob was immensely generous with me and also with countless STPP/ENRP fellows. I clearly remember many fellows (and even some MPP students) coming to me out of the blue to let me know how very helpful and kind he had been to them. He brought together good nature, brilliance, wittiness and a delightful sense of fun.”

Matthew Bunn (Harvard Kennedy School)

“Such sad, sad news.  He was such a terrific guy in so many ways. One of my favorite Froschisms was his response to all the ‘Centers’ around HKS: the sign on his office door labeled ‘Periphery for Global Skepticism.’ I will miss him a lot.”

William C. Clark (Harvard Kennedy School)

“Such a wonderous, funny, generous gentleman, scholar, and public servant!

His education of me started when he was still at GM – running the research labs, but still with time to talk to a kid about what drives innovation. (His answer: ‘~Willingness to fail most of the time, and own the failures … which is why universities so rarely innovate.’)

He trained me to run committees through apprenticeship to his program on industrial ecology at the National Academies.

And even taught me to teach, specifically how to create ‘teachable moments.’ (He got the owner of a grubby East Cambridge junkyard to host a field trip visit from HKS policy class he and I led. Our discovery of the vicious guard dog and the owner’s dialect fit our expectations; our discovery that every piece of junk was bar-coded and entered into a national data base run by a junk-yard cooperative promising overnight delivery of anything did not… Teachable moment defined!).

But I think what made me a regular guest at Bob’s Back Bay apartment was his discovery that – courtesy of my earlier career as a herpetologist – I could put a family if not genus name to most of the hundreds (thousands?) of ceramic frogs that he had accumulated there….

I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have had for so many years the pleasure of his company.   His place is very empty…”

Sheila Jasanoff (Harvard Kennedy School)

“Bob had a way of connecting with people by taking an interest in their work, their thinking, and their challenges. He wore his own achievements lightly, and it took me a while to learn the depth and breadth of his leadership experience. Maybe, as a former NASA head, he knew a thing or two about landings, hard and soft. Whatever the reasons, he softened my landing at Harvard with many conversations spiked with his personal brand of humor and irony. But there was always a serious message. One of Bob’s favorite stories was about the tourist who visits all the major government buildings in DC at the end of a long day.  In each, she sees a cleaner vacuuming and asks what they are doing. The answer is always the same – vacuuming – until the tourist reaches NASA. There, the cleaner says, ‘Going to the moon.’ Bob never lost sight of the importance of missions, and from him I learned the two management principles that have helped me most: be interested in people and give them a mission. All those he touched with his wisdom will carry his mission forward. This I know for certain.”

Kelly Sims Gallagher (Tufts University)

“I am crushed. There are a few people’s voices who are in my head all the time and Bob’s is one of them.  He used to duck his head in my office to offer unsolicited advice on a daily basis.  Little did I know at the time that I was being trained by a master. I still use ‘why the customer is always wrong’ in my classes and employ ‘management by walking around’ whenever I can find the time to spare.

He will be sorely missed.”

Henry Lee (Harvard Kennedy School)

“This is very sad news. He was so knowledgeable and so generous. Like Bill I first met him in the mid 80s, when I was soliciting GM to be a donor to HKS. I met with Bob and Marina von Neuman Whitman at GM's HQ in Detroit.  Quite a contrast in personalities.

When we had meetings on any topic at HKS, we would go around the room with each person providing comments on whatever topic was on the agenda, but what we all were waiting for were Bob’s observations. He never disappointed.  He would always provide an insight or a piece of information that no one knew or had thought of.  Every one of us became better researchers, teachers, and mentors because of Bob.  Even though he had accomplished so much in his career, you would not know it unless you asked. He came from a generation of pragmatic scholars who had vast experience in both the public and private sectors and were deeply empathetic to others.

I feel very lucky to have had the opportunity to work with him.”

Karin Vander Schaaf (Harvard Kennedy School)

“The news of Bob’s passing is so very sad. I was immensely fond of him, and always enjoyed it when he could attend our STPP/ENRP fall orientations, or any other project meetings that fit his schedule. His presence added a lightness whenever he was in the room. Bob was generous with his time if a fellow needed his expertise or counsel. He always made himself available when asked.

Bob and I did exchange an occasional email after he stopped coming to campus, and his kind and thoughtful notes always brightened my day.  

He will be missed.”

Ambuj D. Sagar (Indian Institute of Technology Delhi)

“I was very sorry to hear about Bob's passing!!

He was my first boss at HKS (when I joined as a post-doc on an Industrial Ecology project with him and Bill Clark many years, actually decades, ago) and it was an absolute pleasure and a privilege to have worked with him. He was an eternal font of knowledge, wisdom, and humor, while also being incredibly humble - they truly don't make people like him anymore!

I saw him last in July 2019 on my annual summer visit to the US.  When I asked him how he was spending his time, he said that he had become quite interested in infinity as a mathematical concept and was therefore trying to sort through that - and pointed to a stack of books on the shelf behind me.  And that to me captures Bob more than anything else - infinite intellectual curiosity and zest for learning!!”

Robert Stavins (Harvard Kennedy School)

“I have wonderful memories of many long conversations with Bob in his office and mine. He was a kind, insightful, and helpful colleague. And I would have pegged his age at 10 years less!”

Ryan A. Musto (MacArthur Nuclear Security Fellow, CISAC, Stanford University)

“I had the pleasure to interview Bob through a series of emails in August 2020. I am writing a book chapter on the creation of the 1971 Seabed Treaty that banned nuclear weapons on the ocean floor. Bob served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research and Development in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and therefore played an important role in discussions on the U.S. side leading to an agreement.

Bob could not have been more generous with his time and helpful with his insight. He helped me to understand what seabed systems the U.S. considered at the time and to contextualize the flurry of meetings the U.S. held on the issue of seabed arms control. But what stands out most in my brief interactions with Bob was his sense of humor. He had me laughing out loud from his emails. In one, he recalled that he labeled Project Cloud Gap, a 1960s initiative intended to measure the feasibility of arms control inspections, as ‘Project Loud Crap,’ because he thought it all ‘pretty naïve.’ He admitted to not having any better ideas, but instead likened himself to Till Eulenspiegel, a 16th century German trickster, as he looked to think up ‘evasions’ to any inspections regime. What a hoot!  

When Sharon Wilke first connected us, Bob responded by writing, ‘I’m aged 92, and partly bionic; running on a cardiac pacemaker and handfuls of pills, but seem to have enough marbles left to go on with. I do a lot of reading; mostly light 19th century stuff like Thackeray. I also occasionally look into a math question, but nothing serious. I live with my elder daughter and her family, which includes 2 young adult grandchildren, so I have a selection of ages around me. At the moment I’m planning to go on until I’m 102, but heaven knows.’ Well, heaven knows that it has someone special now. I’m sad Bob will not see the contributions he made to my work, but I am forever grateful for his time and for the chance to interact with him.”

Adam Higginbotham (Journalist/Writer)

“I’m so sorry to hear this news... I spoke to [Bob] on a couple of occasions in September and we continued to exchange emails in October. He seemed so alert and vivacious that, even though he was 92, it’s a shock to learn of his death. Although the circumstances of the pandemic meant that we were unable to meet he in person, he was extremely generous with his time, funny, perceptive and self-deprecating in spite of his manifold achievements. In our conversations he continued to have extraordinary recall of the events we were discussing, and I feel lucky to have been able to speak to him—both about his time working at NASA during a crucial watershed in the agency’s history, and his perspective on its development since.” [Note: Higginbotham interviewed Bob Frosch in September and October for a book he's writing on history of the space shuttle program]

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution: Tribute to Robert A. Frosch (excerpt)

The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution announces with great sorrow the death of Guest Investigator, former Director of Research, and former Trustee and Life Trustee, Robert (Bob) A. Frosch on December 30, 2020 in South Hadley, Mass., after a long illness. He was 92.

Bob was considered the “father of industrial ecology,” and is credited with launching the field in 1989 with a series of articles, the first of which was published in Scientific American and entitled “Strategies for Manufacturing.” That article, which he co-authored with Nicholas Gallopoulos, suggested the need for an ecosystem-based approach to evaluating industrial processes, in which “the use of energies and materials is optimized, wastes and pollution are minimized, and there is an economically viable role for every product of a manufacturing process.” The articles he wrote in the late 1980s and early 1990s drew attention to the importance of managing industrial processes and waste in an environmentally acceptable manner. Bob is internationally recognized for his contributions to the development of environmentally friendly technologies.

“Bob had one of the brightest scientific minds I have ever known” said WHOI colleague, Dave Ross. “He was always willing to share his ideas, was a mentor to me for over three decades, and I always looked forward to our twice-weekly phone calls after he moved off Cape. He will be missed.”

For the full Wood Hole Oceanographic Institution remembrance, see here. 


For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:Remembering Robert (Bob) Frosch.” News, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, January 25, 2021.