By almost any measure, UCSD's Larry Smarr is a superstar of science and technology.
Hardly a week goes by, the record shows, when the onetime astrophysicist-turned-Internet-guru isn't out jetting around the country, speaking before trade conventions, holding forth at academic seminars, attending corporate advisory-board meetings, or giving interviews to the computer-trade press. Smarr is always good for a quote. His message is his mantra, "A gigabit or bust."
None other than Howard Rheingold -- onetime editor in chief of The Millennium Whole Earth Catalog and founding executive editor of Hot Wired (a pillar of America's high-tech journalism) -- has an homage to Smarr in his 2002 techno-futurist book Smart Mobs. "Perhaps the most significant news in the grid-computing effort is that astrophysicist Larry Smarr has enlisted the governor of California to finance what Smarr calls 'the emerging planetary supercomputer,' " wrote Rheingold.
"Smarr has a track record when it comes to creating as well as forecasting the next paradigm in computation. He founded the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) in 1985. Part of the project involved finding ways to link the nation's five supercomputing centers through high-speed Internet connections.
"In 1993, another part of the NCSA research resulted in the creation of Mosaic, the browser software that detonated the explosive growth of the Web. His latest sponsor, funded by $300 million in state and private financing, is the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS).
"He imagines bridges that are covered with a fabric of computerized sensors that will automatically tell engineers where earthquake damage has occurred, or a world in which intelligent buildings whisper directions to visitors on the way to their destinations. CITRIS will focus on new kinds of sensors, distributed computing software and advanced wireless Internet."
Smarr is the university's unofficially designated technological pontificator, poised to appear at almost any moment to offer himself as the average citizen's guide to the mysterious and sometimes frightening universe of modern technology. "We are moving into a world where your location is going to be known at all times by some electronic device. It's inevitable. So we should be talking about its consequences before it's too late," he told a reporter for the New York Times last month.Keeping track of the whereabouts of Larry Smarr himself, however, is not so easy.
Thanks in part to California taxpayers, he has parlayed his one-time association with the inventors of Netscape, the first popular Web-browsing software, into a lucrative personal franchise, complete with his own webpage featuring a guided photo tour of his elaborate gardens and hot tub in the back yard of his ocean-view La Jolla home, purchased with a $1 million home loan from state taxpayers.
He reached a new pinnacle three years ago when then-governor Gray Davis announced that Smarr would become head of a new branch of the University of California, the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology, to be headquartered at UCSD, into which state taxpayers have poured an estimated $300 million. His wife Janet was given a professorship in the theater department.
But the election of Republican governor Arnold Schwarzenegger means that the university's free-spending days may soon be over, a development that may subject Larry Smarr to unaccustomed scrutiny. Smarr's star power has come with a big price tag: the expense of his annual salary, currently just over $244,000, exceeds the average of most full professors at the university.
According to a recent survey by the American Association of University Professors, the average of salary of UCSD professors was $93,400. Average pay at UCLA was $98,600 and at Berkeley, $101,800. The highest in the country was Harvard's, at $125,000.
In 2001, shortly after taking charge of the institute, Smarr told a reporter he actually no longer conducted research. And he claims not to be much of an administrator, either. "I don't run existing organizations -- that's part of my deal," he boasted to the Union-Tribune in May of 2002. His travel schedule apparently leaves little time for teaching -- at a time when the university's student-faculty ratio is soaring. His most recently published scientific paper, according to the "Professional Vita" on his website, is dated 1995.
Thus, looming over Smarr's many travels and consulting activities is the question: can California taxpayers afford to keep him on the university payroll? His backers say that, while not much of a real scientist or engineer anymore, Smarr has a genius for raising money from private industry, which may become even more of an asset in the days of tightening state budgets.
Smarr's detractors within the University of California faculty -- who keep their criticism muted, lest they anger Smarr's friend and associate, UC president Robert Dynes, former chancellor of UCSD -- say Smarr is making more money than he is worth.
Dynes is the son-in-law of Warren Hellman, wealthy heir to the Levi Strauss fortune, a venture capitalist, and campaign contributor to Gray Davis, the now-fallen California governor who in 2000 set up Smarr's institute and provided the cash for it from the state treasury. Even though he is now president of UC and presumably busy with those duties, both Dynes and his wife, physicist Frances Hellman, are listed on the institute's website as among its 220 faculty researchers.
But today, in light of the state's crushing deficit, average California taxpayers may be likely to ask, what has Smarr and his institute done for them lately. With state and local budgets being shaved to the bone, newspapers are full of horror stories about wasteful, extravagant spending by high rollers on the government payroll.
One recent victim was Roger Talamantez, head of the City of San Diego's Data Processing Corporation, who was forced to resign his post two weeks ago after it was revealed that he had presided over elaborate employee "retreats" and parties where shots of premium tequila and $121 bottles of wine paid for by the agency were de rigueur.
Auditors also found that the corporation had paid for a spouse's $1075 airfare and picked up a $2000 tab for ten individuals to go to a charity dinner last year. Talamantez, who earned $235,975 a year, was forced to pay back $3108.74 worth of booze and $225 in golf expenses, on top of the $4700 he had already agreed to return. Just by coincidence, Talamantez's wife Delia is the conflict-of-interest officer for UCSD, in charge of keeping track of the financial-disclosure forms filed under requirements of state law by administrators and professors. Smarr's travel expenses are far greater than anything Roger Talamantez ever ran up.