6 October 2017

On October 3, Dr. Conrado Franco Varotto, a founding member of INVAP and the Executive and Technical Director of the National Space Activities Commission (CONAE, in Spanish), was conferred the most distinguished honorary title, “Doctor Honoris Causa,” conferred by the National University of San Martín (UNSAM, in Spanish).

During the event, the prominent physicist Mario Mariscotti gave the traditional laudation we are herewith sharing:

UNSAM – OCTOBER 3, 2017.
Mario A.J. Mariscotti

I am thankful for the invitation of the National University of San Martín to say a few words about Dr. Conrado Varotto on this special occasion in which he is awarded the title of Doctor Honoris Causa.

I thank it sincerely because I have enormous appreciation and admiration for Dr. Varotto. He is a person of great merit and extraordinary humility and he deserves this homage and many more.

Let me begin with a short review of his career and then comment on his achievements and mention some personal memories.

Varotto was born in the province of Padua, Italy, during the Second World War, and arrived to Argentina with his parents when he was 9 years old, in 1950. He recalled afterwards that his parents were looking for “a prosperous country with a wonderful aura, a land of great opportunities” and “a place where our children may study.”
When he was 15 years old, he joined the Exact and Natural Sciences School (FCEN, in Spanish) of the University of Buenos Aires and in 1959 won a scholarship to enter the Bariloche’s Institute of Physics (today the Balseiro Institute). There he graduated and got his doctor’s degree in Physics. In 1968, he went to Stanford University with a scholarship from the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET, in Spanish).

He spent two years at Stanford’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering. As we well know, Stanford has been the cradle of the Silicon Valley enterprises.
According to Varotto, “Stanford influenced the way I saw the link between science and industry.” In those years, the prevailing culture of the academic organizations in Argentina did not favor applied research, and even less so its commercialization (what we today call “technology transfer”).

Upon his return to San Carlos de Bariloche, he established and managed for a few years the Department of Applied Research at the Bariloche Atomic Center. Since it was not considered appropriate at the time that a state agency would sell technology, in 1974 he started thinking about creating a company with this aim. First Admiral Pedro Iraolagoitía, President of the National Commission of Atomic Energy (CNEA, in Spanish) supported the idea, and then, in 1976, his successor, Admiral Castro Madero, conveyed the impulse to put it into practice. In my view, this has been one of the initiatives with the most significant economic and social impact on the application of knowledge in the history of our country.

Varotto led INVAP until 1991. The next couple of years were somehow distressful. We shared the uncertainty on our future —I had also left CNEA and was planning to create a company called Tomografía de Hormigón Armado S.A. (THASA, in Spanish). I remember that we even talked about becoming partners in this undertaking; but, some time later, he won the position of National Director of Planning, Evaluation and Control at the Secretariat of Science and Technology. Fortunately (in my opinion), in 1994, he was appointed executive and technical director of the newly funded CONAE, a position he holds to this day.

Varotto is a member of the National Academy of Sciences at Córdoba and of the National Academy of Sciences at Buenos Aires. He received many prizes, among other institutions, from the Argentine Scientific Society; in 1993, he was awarded the Platinum Konex to the most outstanding figure of the decade in nuclear technology. In 2001, 2003 and 2008, his work was recognized by the Italian Government. In 2012 he received the Prize of the National Academy of Exact, Physical and Natural Sciences to an Outstanding Contribution in the field. In 2015, the Argentine Senate awarded him the Mention of Honor. Recently, he got the prize called “Eccelenze Veneto Nel Mondo” (Venetian Excellence in the World), a heartfelt recognition from his former compatriots.

Varotto was one of the pioneers in promoting the Silicon Valley spirit in Argentina. Although INVAP’s creation was the achievement of a group of people, it bore his unmistakable stamp of creativity and personal drive. The very design of the new company was his own idea: to establish it as a state-owned company belonging to the Province of Río Negro, operating without government subsidies, managed by a Board of Directors presided over by the CNEA, able to face the ups and downs of the market as any private company. In its early years, there were important achievements, such as the Zircaloy technology, the RA-6 reactor, and the most relevant one: enriched uranium. Then came difficult times that INVAP’s organization was however able to overcome. To survive, INVAP went out to sell to the world and this was a complete success. The company gained valuable experience, unprecedented in Argentina, in selling its own technology, while competing with major international suppliers. I am referring to the series of nuclear reactors sold abroad. Besides, it expanded to include other state-of-the-art technological areas, such as radars and satellites.

I said before that, fortunately, Varotto had been appointed as head of CONAE. He also showed his creativity there, giving the institution an organizational structure that had a surprising continuity, an unusual fact in our country, and saved the Argentine space activity after the dramatic decline of the Condor Project. CONAE has distinguished itself as an organization with a real strategic plan. Varotto honored me by asking me to write the prologue of its first version. The plan included clear goals and objectives, timelines, commitment to results and a definite budget. When the expected flow of funds did not materialize, Varotto was once again able to find unconventional solutions. He had a remarkable capacity for reaching international and intranational (with many Argentine institutions) cooperation agreements, which led to the launching of the SAC-A, B, C and D/Aquarius satellites. NASA, the U.S. space agency, trusted INVAP so much thatthis latest satellite, launched in 2011, carried a NASA instrument valued at about 250 million dollars. A recent report by an international agency highlighted the fact that the SAC-D was the only satellite providing information about seawater salinity. International cooperation includes agreements with Italy to create a satellite constellation, and the CONAE is now working to develop a new generation of segmented satellites, that is, space-assembled ones.

I met Varotto in 1959 in the lecture rooms and corridors of the well-known Exact and Natural Sciences School, at 222 Perú Street, Buenos Aires City. We were fellow pupils there only for a few months. I had finished my first year at the engineering school and he was about to return to Bariloche. We became companions for a short period encouraged by the practicing Catholicism of both and our participation in the university humanistic movement.

Later, both of us lived abroad for some years. Once we returned to the country in 1970, we worked together as researchers for the CNEA; he in Bariloche and I in Buenos Aires. However, the “strong interaction” began in 1984, when I was appointed R&D Director and became INVAP’s main client with a major contract: the Pilcaniyeu Uranium Enrichment Plant. By that time, INVAP was already a prestigious entity, due especially to the enriched uranium achievement, announced in November 1983. Everyone at CNEA took great pride in this successful program, in which I was now a participant.

I remember the excitement of the first visit to the Pilcaniyeu Plant and to the secret laboratory built behind the Soria Moria chalet in Llao Llao villa.
In the summer of 1984, an unusual meeting took place with the Science Attaché of the American Embassy, during which we discussed with Varotto and Osuna the access to Pilca in exchange for the Islas Malvinas (¡!). That same summer, Varotto, who had always encouraged me to finish the book I was writing, The Atomic Secret of Huemul Island, provided me with secretarial service to make a clean copy of the manuscript. On another occasion, we had to cope with a difficult situation when the Pakistani Nobel Prize laureate Abdus Salam visited Bariloche and asked to tour the plant’s facilities, while an Indian nuclear delegation was visiting CNEA just then!
In 1996, when Del Bello was in charge of the Secretariat of Science and Technology, we worked together in the “Bases for a Discussion on Science and Technology Policies”. Varotto successfully coordinated the Commission 2, the most complicated of all. His collaboration was very valuable under the circumstances.

I appreciate and admire Varotto not only for his professional achievements, but also, and most importantly, for his personal attributes. Varotto is an extremely active and efficient individual. Being a “client” of INVAP, as I said, I learned from him how to manage dossiers with unique expertise and efficiency. Varoto has an inexhaustible energy and faith when faced with big challenges, and this combines with exceptional humility and human sensitivity.

I seldom heard him grumble; on the contrary, he always sees the positive side of things, and I believe that thanks to this attitude he has been able to overcome big obstacles and  criticisms (including attacks), which would make any normal person give up. His constant concern for the well-being of those who surround him is also remarkable. It is worth remembering that the stocks issued by INVAP to share profits with its employees were part of his design.

I have sometimes wondered about the origins of such a fruitful personality. Perhaps it has to do with his childhood during the war. The image of a four-year-old boy running to hug the unknown prisoner of war coming home and tell him: “I know you. You are my daddy” is certainly moving.

Thank you, beloved Conrado, for having done so much and proving with your actions that the dream of a prosperous Argentina, achieved by cultivating and applying knowledge, is not a utopia.


CONRADO VAROTTO: “In Argentina, we can have the guts to do much more”