John Ford | Staff Writer
Imagine it’s early 2001. The new George W. Bush administration is in office, with rumors circulating about its skepticism of global warming in particular and science in general. You get a call from the National Academy of Sciences. They want you to chair a study on the state of climate change. The White House is asking for the study, and they want a report in four weeks.
Ralph J. Cicerone got that call. NAS president since 2005, Cicerone is Thursday morning’s lecturer as the Jim Lehrer-moderated examination of “What Voters Need to Know” continues.
Cicerone was chancellor at the University of California, Irvine, in 2001. He is founding chairman of the school’s Department of Earth System science, and he later moved up to dean of the School of Physical Sciences before being named chancellor in 1998.
“When I heard of the White House request, that was a milestone moment for sure,” Cicerone said.
“But once the NAS decided to take on the project, short deadline and all, we just got to work and got it done. … Though I had no idea of a future NAS position at the time, working through that study certainly gave me greater familiarity with NAS processes and likely got me better known in broader scientific circles.”
Cicerone’s academic career began at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and continued to a doctoral program at the University of Illinois. After several years at the University of Michigan as a researcher and faculty member in atmospheric science, he moved to the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego in 1978 and then to the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado. Cicerone moved to Irvine in 1989.
A satchel full of awards and distinctions marked that time in academia as well as a steady progression through research and faculty positions to leadership and program direction responsibilities.
“I was committed to research, no doubt,” Cicerone said, “but at several places along the way, there were mini-crises — such as happen in academia — and I guess I might have complained about certain things. People kept responding, ‘Then, fix it!’ and gave me the authority to do so.”
Now, he could reasonably be called the face of science in the United States.
Given his research in atmospheric chemistry and the radiative forcing of climate change due to trace gases, Cicerone has faced many questions about global warming and the ongoing political warfare over its causes. Asked last September by The New York Times about Internet-based attacks on individual climate scientists, Cicerone said, “The ferocity and maliciousness of the attacks is shocking people, but I don’t think it’s affecting scientists in what they do or frightening them out of the field.”
The big picture for this morning’s speaker is nothing less than the future of the planet. Asked in the same Times interview about what new areas science should emphasize, Cicerone replied, “Personally, I would like to know how stable are some of the productive aspects of our environment. How secure are ocean fisheries or tropical forests? When you chew up big parts of these systems, do the remaining parts still operate in the same way with respect to biodiversity?
“The NAS receives no congressional funding,” he said. “Our funding comes mostly from federal agencies and departments who ask, or are instructed to ask by the White House, for answers to hard science questions. Our answers must always be thorough and objective. That doesn’t always mean they will be popular.
“Once in a while, for instance, I’ll hear that a congressman is unhappy with our findings and will threaten to cut NAS funding. The inability to carry out that threat helps to ensure our independence. We must continue to be honest brokers of unimpeachable objectivity.”
The National Science Foundation, with which NAS is sometimes confused, does get regular congressional appropriation, Cicerone said, and provides much of the scientific research funding in the U.S.
Those universities and other research organizations that get such funding have contributed greatly to the U.S.’s leadership role in world science, Cicerone said.
“And we as a nation are much more dependent on science than ever before,” he said.
But to lead the nation out of economic morass, science must continue to grow.
“We have to ask what else can create prosperity?” Cicerone said. “It’s not going to be cutting timber and mining coal as in the past. Science, to be advantageous, must be value-added and knowledge-based. We must build on our world-class universities and continue to attract and admit scientists from abroad.
“Did you know that 25 percent of American Nobel Prize winners and, for that matter, of NAS members, were born overseas? And that persons born abroad hold a disproportionate number of American high-tech patents? The United States must remain a beacon, attracting and welcoming these special talents.”
Cicerone will be on the grounds with his wife, daughter and two grandchildren.