Alumnus Claude Eon Speaks on the Role of Scientists in Society
"The message, if I may, I would like to convey to all young students and readers is that you never know where life is going to lead you, but a solid education in science, particularly on Barry Karger's track, would undoubtedly lead you somewhere, a rewarding somewhere. It is an excellent investment. It is not the purely scientific expertise (here in analytical sciences) that matters, it is what is behind it: the scientific rigor, distinguishing well-proven facts from speculations or wishes, the ability to connect things together in a logical manner, and at the end (life is compromises) to strike well-informed, balanced decisions on many issues, scientific and otherwise." - Alumnus Claude Eon
From Humble Beginnings to Shaping International Defense and Industry
Article by Roger Kautz
Dr. Eon's first endearing quality is his inclusivity: gracefully passing over significant achievements ("I got lucky ... it went well"), to focus the conversation on our real capabilities as scientists in addressing the world's important problems. He is not entirely joking when he tells about starting chemistry in his twenties and "I was basically a dropout. I tried law for a year ... made a go at being a musician; I was looking for myself. Why did I become a chemist? Well, there was a radio personality I admired who was a former chemist. And sometimes you meet people and things happen ... "
Soon after that he was publishing with the legendary Georges Guiochon, on how molecules partition between two phases in GC, and in the nascent field of LC. "There were two people who were very influential in my early life. One of them was Georges, and the other, Georges introduced me to, was Barry Karger".
Claude Eon came to Northeastern and did postdoctoral work with Dr. Karger, between earning his basic Ph.D. in 1970, and returning to Paris in 1972 to complete their more extensive (5 yr) Docteur des Sciences.
Academia and Phosphate Rocks
He returned to Northeastern in 1973, as Professor (Adjunct) of Chemistry, then taught in French at Sherbrooke University (between Montreal and Quebec City). To alleviate the strain of expatriotism on his marriage , he (wisely, he says with a smile) returned to France, joining the World Phosphate Institute as Technical Director (a position better-translated as VP of Research) on his strengths as a chemical engineer. The institute conceived new markets for phosphate-rich rocks in addition to fertilizer, notably as a potential source of uranium and trans-uranic elements. Being an alliance of phosphate-producing nations, including Western and Arabic countries, eventually "I was caught between forces like two tectonic plates ... and got fired ! "
Ministry of Defense
His humility leaves a gap between that event and appearing in the Ministry of Defense, Directorate of "La Recherche des Etudes et de la Technologie" -- the French analogue of DARPA. "It was a small group, but each member had a budget to contract research, and acted as liaison between the universities and the Ministry. I was lucky" he says "to head the nuclear, biological, and chemical branch".
In 1990 he was asked to "come inside" the Ministry, and headed a large group of interdisciplinary laboratories -- over 350 people, including chemists, physicists, veterinarians, meteorologists and many others. Much of their work was on protection from everything from bullets to nuclear attack. "Things were already relatively open in those days, there were public meetings to describe the mission of the Ministry. In fact the only secret well-kept is that there was no secret!" However, he remembers the day he began dealing with journalists trying to sniff out things that weren't there. He received coaching in how to act in front of cameras, how to talk to journalists, and would speak for the Ministry in the first Iraq war.
After 10 years as head of the labs, he was taken into the international directorate as the scientific expert and advisor in negotiation of nonproliferation treaties and disarmament issues, largely to advise negotiators and diplomats on verification requirements. There was a lot of travel, but "the labs supported me, would feed me answers and more questions ". Negotiations could drag on for years. "Sometimes the only way people can agree on something is to agree on nothing ... The goals were interesting, the process debilitating." (Read more about the ministry in his own words).
Science and Society
"Many people from Barry's group are doing well. Young people need challenges and, more important than his considerable expertise in chemistry, he teaches you to find and choose them wisely".
"In the West we live by our treaties, but many societies and cultures don't. Scientists, in particular, can be incredibly naive about this. The public and politicians, on the other hand, can greatly benefit from an understanding of practical considerations of verification, or realistic goals in project management."
In his last job with the Ministry, he became a policy maker's advisor, finding ways to move industry towards green technologies where possible. But "there is a practical limitation of the rate of change of technology, which may be unproven in critical applications. You had sudden legislation, like abandoning lead from solder. But we had no experience with it - if you send up a satellite with lead-free solder, will it work? ... for how long? There are also the end-of-life issues for new products -- like the mercury in compact fluorescent bulbs starting to appear in landfills today. But autos are now 80% recyclable, and these factors are even being considered in manufacturing weapons, which (thankfully) are rarely used before they are obsolete."
The public has little understanding of relative risk. "If, for example, you were to just detonate the entire stockpile of obsolete weapons, it would produce an amount of pollution equivalent to about 2 hours of Paris traffic. But we pay dearly for zero tolerance on releases from weapons disposal."
Claude retired in 2005. "Although I feel as young as ever, it is time to start slowing down." He enjoys traveling the world in his consulting and part time work, as well as gardening and other outdoor activities.
Read Eon's Comments, In His Own Words>>