Robert Craig and Summit County’s Keystone Center: A life of lofty ideas
Ryan Summerlin April 13, 2013
A conversation with Robert Craig could take you a lot of places. You might start out talking about boats and sailing and end up discussing conditions on the west ridge of Mount Everest during a monsoon. A chat about traveling in Europe or South America can easily evolve into a discussion on the state of the biotechnology industry. In Summit County, Craig is probably best known as the founder of The Keystone Center, a nonprofit organization that brings experts in the fields of science and technology together with representatives of government, industry and the environment to work toward resolutions in key issues.The center, however, is just one chapter in a life rich in experience, stretching across the globe, with noted accomplishments in both the physical and intellectual realms.
Born in California, Craig spent much of his youth in the Golden State, Panama, where his father, a naval officer, was stationed, and Seattle. Among these settings he cultivated a love for outdoor activities, particularly sailing and mountaineering.”I grew up around boats all my life. My life is between the sea and the mountains,” he said.Coming from a family of career naval officers, it’s no surprise that Craig attended Kings Point, the United States Merchant Marine Academy. He graduated in 1944 and served as a deck officer on an attack cargo ship in the Pacific Ocean during World War II. After nearly four years in the military, Craig returned to civilian life, attending the University of Washington and then Columbia University, earning degrees in biology and philosophy.”I was always interested in science,” he said. “Coming out of the war, I became interested in philosophy and I decided, finally, in graduate school, that my field that I was interested in was philosophy of science, but I finally concluded that the best work in philosophy of science was being done by scientists themselves rather than philosophers, who were kind of picking at the edges.”These interests would become the founding base of Craig’s work in the fields of science and policy including, eventually, The Keystone Center.Upon graduating, Craig made his way to Aspen, where Walter Paepcke, the founder of the Aspen Institute, hired him to become the organization’s first executive director. He worked there for 10 years, enjoying not only his work with the institute but the beautiful mountain setting of the town. Craig’s next decade was spent simultaneously running a cattle ranch outside of Aspen and an industrial design company in Chicago. All of this was in addition to various climbing and mountaineering expeditions to locations such as Everest, K12 and the Pamir range in the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union expedition, in fact, was so monumental in its scope not only of physical challenge but human tragedy, that Craig wrote a book about it. “Storm & Sorrow in the High Pamirs” can be found in various libraries throughout the state.
It was just after his return from that expedition that Craig arrived in Summit County, invited by Bob Maynard, then president of Keystone Resort.”He asked me if I had another Aspen in me,” Craig recalled. “I said, well, not exactly Aspen, because I don’t think that it would be a good idea to copy what Aspen is doing, but I said I’d be interested in trying out an idea and that idea became The Keystone Center.”Craig’s idea revolved around gathering professionals together into one place to discuss the facts of scientific and environmental issues. The purpose behind the discussions was then to create policies and resolutions that would solve problems and put businesses, people and the government on the right track. “It became the best of its kind of organization in the country in terms of resolving conflicts that involve industry and the environmental community and the government,” he said of The Keystone Center.The first issue it addressed, following its opening in early 1975, was that of the problem of the storage of radioactive waste. Negotiation between representatives of the industrial and environmental communities finally resulted in a presidential order increasing the capacity of storage for nuclear waste at the reactor, which was signed by President Carter.”That was a big breakthrough,” Craig said.Eventually the Keystone Policy Dialogue series emerged, setting up discussions and negotiations between experts on a number of scientific and environmental issues. The Keystone Biotechnology Forum also arose, tackling the management and regulation of genetic engineering.”I was very interested in genetics,” Craig said, adding, “If we’d gone in a certain direction, the biotech industry might not have emerged as it has in this country, which has had a tremendous impact on national health issues and so on.”The Keystone Center’s reach was not only national but international in scale, arranging conferences between experts and professionals from India and China to South American, Ethiopia, Europe and America and more. Despite the diversity of backgrounds and cultures, Craig recalls that everyone “got along quite well.” This may have been due to the fact that Craig and the center insisted upon an aspect of neutrality throughout all its discussions. This meant focusing solely on the scientific facts presented while putting aside matters of opinion or personal bias.”If we just focus on the facts in an issue, such as hazardous waste or clean air, and get the best science, you’ve got a better chance of arriving at some kind of meaningful regulatory positions,” Craig said. While this neutral stance was fundamental during discussions, it occasionally caused challenges when it came to funding.”The real problem for The Keystone Center has been that our neutrality is so precious that we find it very hard to raise money, because people don’t like to give money to people who are neutral. They want to give to a cause, they want to give to the environmental community or they want to give to industry and so on. It’s been kind of a tough road,” Craig said. Despite this, he believes that the gains are more than worth the difficulties.”It is difficult, but if you seek the best people, who have also the quality of integrity, I think you can get to some useful decisions and some useful consensus, and that’s what we strive to do.”
Craig said he is certain that all the hard work done by the center over the years has had positive impacts in various scientific and political fields, including environment, food, health, energy and biotechnology. When discussing achievement, Craig’s focus not only considers the adult world, but that of children as well. The Keystone Science School, he said, was an essential part of the initial conception of the center. The center’s first year lay the foundation for it and the second year, 1976, saw the school’s opening.”Having the science school meant training children in fundamentals of understanding that the excitement and thrill of science is an important landmark in their lives, as they start out,” he said. “I thought that at the same time we were talking about resolving issues at the adult level, that having the science school would keep us always honest. It was kind of a backdrop to what we were trying to achieve, and it still is.”
There is, of course, much more to tell. Craig’s life is very much like the mountains he loves, a continuing series of peaks, offering seemingly endless opportunities for more.”But, anyway,” as he said at one point, “that’s another story.”