The National Science Board awarded former UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau the Vannevar Bush Award on Thursday for his research in physics and dedication to public education, among other contributions.
The recipients of the Vannevar Bush Award are honored for their lifelong leadership in science, technology and public policy. Past recipients include former campus chancellor Glenn Seaborg and former campus professor Charles Townes, both of whom went on to win Nobel prizes in chemistry and physics, respectively.
“I have gotten awards for my research and for public service, but this is the first that incorporates both,” Birgeneau said of his reaction to the honor. “I find that particularly gratifying.”
During Birgeneau’s tenure as chancellor, the campus became the first in the nation to offer full financial aid to undocumented students and the first public university to provide substantial aid to middle-class students, according to the National Science Foundation. Birgeneau and his wife also worked to pioneer an initiative to support students from the foster care system, Birgeneau said.
“(Birgeneau) has been a superlative champion and advocate for equity, inclusion, public service and all that our great public universities do to advance the greater good,” said Chancellor Nicholas Dirks in a statement.
According to Birgeneau, his dedication to public service started at a young age, while he was a student at Yale. He worked with young men in the projects of New Haven, guiding them toward graduating high school and eventually pursuing higher education at college.
“He is a generous person who believes in the mission and culture of Berkeley as a university that serves the public good,” said Henry Brady, dean of the Goldman School of Public Policy in an email.
Recently, Birgeneau worked as a project co-chair for the Lincoln Project, with the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, to promote the importance of funding for public institutions.
“His work with the Lincoln Project … has demonstrated his strong commitment to ensuring that we have strong public universities that provide both access and the best possible education to people from all backgrounds,” Brady added.
In addition to his contributions to public education, Birgeneau has maintained a similar influence in academia. During his 25 years of research in condensed matter physics and materials science, Birgeneau focused on properties of materials in different dimensions.
His scientific achievements also include “groundbreaking work” on quantum materials, liquid crystals and unconventional superconductors, according to campus assistant professor of physics James Analytis.
“He has advised many students and postdocs, many of whom have gone on to become leaders in their fields and in every corner of the globe,” Analytis said.
Birgeneau will be presented the award on May 5.