Human Effectiveness chief scientist ends 30-year career at Wright-Patterson AFB

  • Published
  • By John Schutte
  • Human Effectiveness Directorate
A young Kenneth R. Boff arrived at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in 1977 fresh out of the doctoral degree program at Columbia University, anxious to apply his newly acquired skills in experimental psychology at the Air Force Human Resources Laboratory. 

Thirty years later Dr. Boff is retiring as chief scientist of the Air Force Research Laboratory's Human Effectiveness Directorate--and still wondering just a bit how that first job so swiftly evolved into a highly successful 30-year career at Wright-Patterson. 

"I never thought of this as permanent. I didn't see it as a career. I saw each interesting new problem as something I had to work on, and I didn't see too far beyond those problems," Dr. Boff said of his early assignments. "I think that may have contributed to my success because I took one problem at a time, approached it with a passion and a sense that time was critical because I was leaving soon." 

But he did not leave--until now, as he departs with an international reputation as an innovative thinker and leader in the field of human factors, most notably the transition of ergonomic models to complex human-operated systems. 

Only after 15 years in the Dayton area did Dr. Boff finally feel comfortable calling Ohio his home; by then he had established his family and his career, and realized he had arrived at the destination of his professional journey. 

While it was not a journey that he specifically planned, it was definitely one that he loved. 

"I've never viewed work as work. I've actually sort of been amazed that they pay me sometimes because I've been having fun," Dr. Boff says. 

The fun began early with an unexpected project that would launch Dr. Boff into prominence in human factors psychology and culminate with his most significant accomplishment. Asked to join a review panel of general officers and senior staff to investigate problems on a multi-million dollar program, Dr. Boff jumped at the opportunity. 

"Turned out I was the only one with the right expertise to deal with the problems that the vendors were having, and I was using my basic knowledge of psychology and psychological science to criticize what I was seeing," Dr. Boff said. 

That success led to a monumental research project involving 400 associates in seven countries to determine which behavioral science data was most useful in engineering design, and how to make it easy for design engineers to use. 

The landmark result was a 3,000-page, two-volume Handbook of Perception and Human Performance published in 1986, followed two years later by the four-volume Engineering Data Compendium: Human Perception and Performance. 

"I started that project when I was in my 20s and it made my career. It remains the benchmark accomplishment of my career," Dr. Boff said. "That was the springboard to getting higher-level positions." 

Ultimately Dr. Boff became chief scientist for AFRL/HE, where for the last 10 years he has directed HE's science and technology research supporting Department of Defense core technology objectives. 

He considers retirement from federal service merely a transition into new endeavors such a staff position at the Georgia Institute of Technology, an offer that he is considering. He also wants to apply his leadership and problem-solving skills to health care systems or as a member of blue-ribbon government panels. 

"I don't view this a retirement, I view it as form of graduation. I'm not ready to slow down," says Dr. Boff, whose professional contributions still impact systems design engineering worldwide. "I feel a little schizophrenic about all this. I really am looking forward to the opportunities but there's a part of me that's really sad about leaving. I grew up here." 

To ease the transition he plans to host cooking competitions a la the Bobby Flay "throwdowns" featured on cable television's food network, using the outdoor kitchen at his new home in Sarasota, Fla. 

"I'm going to use that venue as a base of operations to try to continue to impact the world as long as I can," Dr Boff said. "And just maybe increase my relaxing time." 

Dr. Boff was honored with a retirement ceremony March 16 that included citations from President Bush and other dignitaries for his contributions to science and technology.