Gene and Gwen Gritton

Gene Gritton (right) with Nancy Staudt, Frank and Marcia Carlucci Dean of Pardee RAND and vice president of Innovation at RAND

Improving the future at Pardee RAND's Tech + Narrative Lab

Gene and Gwen Gritton are key supporters of Pardee RAND's Tech + Narrative Lab. For Gene, the lab represents a continuation of what brought him to RAND in the first place: policy research that can improve the future.

March 16, 2022

Gene Gritton was a young nuclear engineer when he came to RAND in the mid-1960s. In the career that followed, he helped clarify the threat of electromagnetic pulses, analyzed military systems from satellites to submersibles, and aided New York City’s efforts to clean the waters of Jamaica Bay.

He sees the same creative energy at work in the Tech + Narrative Lab at Pardee RAND. The lab has become a focal point for over-the-horizon research on advanced technologies like artificial intelligence and virtual reality. For Gritton, it represents a continuation of what brought him to RAND in the first place: policy research that can improve the future.

He and his wife, Gwen, have become key financial supporters of the lab. They also have made it, Pardee RAND, and the RAND National Security Research Division a priority in their estate planning.

“I’ve always felt that RAND’s mission to help improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis requires a strong research base in engineering and physical science,” he said. “It enhances RAND’s ability to answer some of the most pressing problems we face.”

Pardee RAND created the Tech + Narrative Lab to explore the intersections of emerging technology and public policy. It’s a place where students and researchers build towns that exist only in virtual reality, or invent their own cryptocurrency. It recently hosted a virtual “hackathon” that brought together researchers from RAND, Pardee RAND, and the Atlanta University Center Consortium—the world’s oldest and largest association of historically Black colleges and universities—to seek big-data answers to COVID-19 disparities.

That’s the “Tech” part of its name. The “Narrative” part comes from a hard-wired conviction that students working with machine-learning algorithms or the “Internet of Things” need to be able to explain what, exactly, they’re doing.

The Grittons’ gifts “serve as validation that the Tech + Narrative Lab is heading in the right direction,” lab director Todd Richmond said. “They inspire those working in the lab to keep trying to make progress on the hard problems that emerging technology both creates and, hopefully, can help solve.”

Gritton has spent more than half a century at RAND working to solve just such problems. He arrived as a summer student and semi-retired after six years as vice president. Along the way, he led RAND’s engineering and physical sciences department and served as director of the RAND National Defense Research Institute. He was also named RAND’s resident scholar for technology.

He led RAND’s study of electromagnetic pulses, powerful energy fields created by nuclear explosions. His team’s work led to a better understanding of the risks electromagnetic pulses could pose to sensitive electronics, like those in military airplanes. He spent much of his career helping the military think big on technology—and, in one case, very, very small. He helped develop an idea for tiny, insect-like robots that could provide a bug’s eye view of urban combat.

He also provided some key insight as New York City tried to determine where to build a wastewater treatment plant to keep polluted stormwater from running into Jamaica Bay. At the time, existing simulation models could not accurately predict pollutant concentrations in the bay after a storm. Gritton was able to use numerical simulation approaches he had learned as a nuclear engineer to help the city determine which outfalls to prioritize. The treatment plant is still in operation, right where RAND said it should be.

“Having spent most of my professional career with RAND, I have seen first-hand the independence, quality, and objectivity of its research,” he said. “It really is the gold standard. I hope our gifts can help RAND, Pardee RAND, and the Tech + Narrative Lab continue to do quality research on important national security and societal problems.”