01/11/2011 09:32 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Leadership of Gabrielle Giffords

For many of us in Tucson, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was a cherished friend long before Saturday's stunning assassination attempt made her a household name. Our prayers go out to her and to all of the shooting's survivors -- for their speedy and full recoveries -- and to the loved ones of those who perished. Words simply cannot express the sadness of such a devastating loss.

The media coverage of the shootings has rightly highlighted "Gabby" Giffords' extraordinary personal traits: her commitment to her community; her public service; her drive and determination, and her easy-to-like personality. What's been less noted is her extraordinary leadership, particularly when it comes to U.S. preeminence in the sciences. As president of Research Corporation for Science Advancement, a Tucson-based foundation, I know of that first-hand.

Congresswoman Giffords has served since she entered Congress on the U.S. House of Representatives' Science and Technology Committee, and she chaired its Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics. There she became a priceless asset to our nation, as a leading proponent of science, space exploration, and especially solar energy.

She is a strong and vocal proponent of accelerating development of clean, renewable, solar power as an economic driver for Arizona, and for our nation. She is a leader in this movement not only because her home district, which includes Tucson, is rich in year-round sunshine, but also because of its implications for American economic and technological leadership -- key ingredients in growing the jobs that so many Americans need and deserve.

But she was also among the first to grasp that solar power presents a strategic advantage to American troops in far-flung theaters of battle. She has championed the fact that convoys could be greatly reduced and many lives could be saved among civilian and military truck drivers if energy supplies for our military outposts could be generated on-site, rather than hauled across dangerous territories.

It is that kind of thinking -- quickly grasping the game-changing possibilities of new technology -- that typifies her approach to problem-solving and is the hallmark of her practical and brilliant mind. It is that kind of thinking that caused her to be out-front in support of solar energy conversion almost as soon as she arrived in Congress.

She was first sworn into office on January 3, 2007; she quickly created a Solar Advisory Council, including such renowned scientists as Kavli Prize-winner Roger Angel and Dean of the University of Arizona's College of Science Joaquin Ruiz. By September of that year, she had a report on her desk from the Council titled: "Solar Energy in Southern Arizona." By March of 2008, she had held a field hearing in Tucson of the House Subcommittee on Energy and the Environment titled "Utility-Scale Solar Power: Opportunities and Obstacles".

This past October, she participated in a groundbreaking event called Scialog® (short for science dialog) that brought world-renowned scientists and award-winning early career scientists together at Biosphere 2 in Oracle, AZ, for a four-day discussion of potentially transformational research ideas for solar energy conversion. In that context, she personally introduced Dr. Arun Majumdar, Director of ARPA-E, the only U.S. government agency devoted to transformational energy research and development, who addressed a public gathering at the University of Arizona designed to increase understanding of the crucial energy issues and opportunities affecting our nation. Today, Gabby Giffords fights for her life at the University of Arizona Medical Center, just a few blocks from where she offered those introductory remarks.

As we pray for Congresswoman Giffords, we think of her not only as a cherished friend but as a valued leader, whose vision, intellect, drive and enthusiasm are so important to our nation's future -- and to our pre-eminence in scientific discovery. And, we look forward to the day when our friend and colleague returns to lead us.

Our nation, the state of Arizona, and the people of Tucson will be on much more secure footing when that day arrives. Get well soon, Gabby.

James M. Gentile is president and CEO of Research Corporation for Science Advancement (, America's second-oldest foundation, founded in 1912, and the first dedicated wholly to science.