I’m saddened to have to mark the death this morning of Ralph J. Cicerone, a brilliant atmospheric scientist who skillfully shifted into academic leadership as chancellor of the University of California, Irvine, but really hit his stride through a decade, just ended in June, as president of the National Academy of Sciences.
In that position, Cicerone had a remarkable — and all too rare — habit of listening, and of aiming to maintain a tone of civility, even as the atmosphere around science, and particularly climate science, grew heated and polarized through his time in Washington. He stepped down a year before his second term would have been up, and had been slowing down a bit, according to academy officials.
But several people at the academy said there was a sense of shock today at his passing, at 73, at his home in New Jersey.
In the early 1970s, Cicerone, trained initially as an electrical engineer, played an important role in building the evidence that certain chlorinated compounds could threaten the planet’s protective ozone layer. This line from the abstract of an important paper in Science papers in 1974 says much: “Calculations indicate that chlorofluoromethanes produced by man can greatly affect the concentrations of stratospheric ozone in future decades.” His work is credited in the citation for the 1995 Nobel Prize in Chemistry that went to Paul J. Crutzen, Mario J. Molina and F. Sherwood Rowland.
Even with his accomplishments, Cicerone retained a self-effacing quality and playful sense of fun. He once told me how he happily offered science advice to the producers of the goofy 1977 horror film “Day of the Animals” (who clearly ignored any advice) because it starred Lynda Day George.
To gauge the man, listen to how he described the mix of qualities necessary for what he called the “beautiful pursuit” of scientific research in an interview for the University of California System earlier this year. Watch it here. This 2011 interview for The Times is also illuminating.
I offer condolences to his family and friends.
Here’s an excerpt from the National Academy of Sciences news release:
“The entire scientific community is mourning the sudden and untimely loss of this great leader who has been unexpectedly removed from the forefront of the scientific issues that matter most to the future well-being of society,” said Marcia McNutt, Cicerone’s successor as president of the National Academy of Sciences. “Ralph Cicerone was a model for all of us of not only doing what counts, but doing it with honesty, integrity, and deep passion.”
Cicerone was an atmospheric scientist whose research placed him at the forefront in shaping science and environmental policy, both nationally and internationally. In 2001, he led a key National Academy of Sciences study about climate change requested by President George W. Bush. Ten years later, under Cicerone’s leadership, a comprehensive set of reports titled America’s Climate Choices, which called for action on reducing greenhouse gas emissions while identifying strategies to help the nation and world adapt to a changing climate, were issued. Under Cicerone’s guidance, the NAS and the Royal Society — the science academy of the U.K. — teamed up in 2014 to produce Climate Change: Evidence and Causes, a readable publication written for policymakers, educators, and members of the public.
Engaging the general public in science was a major priority for Cicerone, who spearheaded the creation of the NAS’s Science & Entertainment Exchange. This unique program connects entertainment industry professionals in Hollywood with top scientists and engineers to assist in the portrayal of science in film and TV. He also worked on developing the widely cited 2008 book Science, Evolution and Creationism, which laid out the scientific evidence supporting evolution in a readable way for many audiences.
Helping scientists probe and understand the promise and potential problems posed by powerful emerging technologies like gene editing also was a priority for Cicerone. In 2015, he had a leading role in convening an international summit to explore the many issues raised by the arrival of a new class of genetic tools (such as CRISPR/Cas 9) for potential use in transforming humans, plants, and animals.
Within the NAS, Cicerone’s initiatives demonstrated his commitment to maintaining the institution’s relevance in a rapidly changing world — while still upholding its values of independence and excellence. Under his leadership, the NAS focused on increasing the number of women, minorities, and younger scientists elected to its membership. Cicerone also spoke out publicly for the need to maintain integrity and transparency in research. In his frequent visits and consultations with members of Congress, key Hill staffers, and federal agency heads, he spoke out on behalf of science and science education. [Read the rest.]
Here’s a 2012 lecture Cicerone gave on climate change science: