Earth System Science at
20 Oral History
Edited Oral History Transcript
Interviewed by Rebecca Wright
Tallahassee, Florida – 1 July 2010
is July 1, 2010. This oral history with Dr. Eric Barron is being conducted
in Tallahassee, Florida, for the NASA Headquarters Earth System Science
at 20 Oral History Project. The interview is part of a series to gather
experiences from those who were significantly involved in the efforts
to launch and foster the concept of Earth System Science. Interviewer
is Rebecca Wright, assisted by Jennifer Ross-Nazzal. Thanks for taking
time out of your schedule to talk with us. We’d like you to
start by giving us a brief history of how you got into your field
actually wanted to be a geologist when I was in the third grade, and
decided somewhere in high school that I wanted to combine geology
and oceanography. I went to my undergraduate program at Florida State
purely because it had geology, and if I did well I could take graduate
classes in oceanography while I was an undergraduate. Then I went
off to graduate school in oceanography at the University of Miami,
so I had a deliberate path. In third grade, I thought I wanted to
be a geology professor.
were actually involved in Earth System Science as early as 1986.
earlier. But in a very direct way by 1986.
you share with us how you got there and how you brought [the concept
of Earth System Science] forward?
suppose this is a strange thing, but I was sitting there and I had
a fellowship in graduate school from Texaco, and Texaco let me take
any class I wanted. They paid for my books, they paid for my tuition;
there was never a time during my graduate career where I didn’t
keep taking classes. So I kept exploring, and I kept changing my mind
as a consequence, what it is that I really I wanted to study. First
I thought it was organisms and then I thought it would be geophysics
and then I decided it should be climate in Earth history.
The whole notion of plate tectonics had come of age while I was a
graduate student. What was going to happen following plate tectonics?
Well, my thought was that the ocean and atmospheric circulation would
change as the continents moved, and nobody was thinking about that.
So I decided I could be a pioneer in that particular area.
Since Texaco was paying for it, I started to take classes that were
in climate, and I had a physical oceanography class. I ended up taking
a dynamic meteorology class, but I was a geologist. Most geologists
don’t take dynamic meteorology class. I put on my committee
a physical oceanographer, an atmospheric scientist, and a couple of
people who worked in geophysics. The meteorology professor said, “I
want you to apply to the National Center for Atmospheric Research
[Boulder, Colorado] for a summer fellowship in supercomputing. There’s
six of them at NCAR.” NCAR is the name for National Center for
Atmospheric Research. “There’s six of them, and you should
apply. You spend half the day learning how to use advanced supercomputers,
vector-based machines, and you spend half the day working on a scientific
Well, I thought this was really hysterical in some ways, and truly
I rolled my eyes after I left the room, because there was no way a
geologist was going to go to the National Center for Atmospheric Research
on one of six coveted summer fellowships. But he was on my committee
so I applied.
Lo and behold, I get one of these fellowships, and I go to NCAR to
spend the summer. The person next to me, who’s now a professor
at MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts],
was doing this complex simulation of thunderstorm development, and
somebody else was doing some simulation efforts of planetary waves.
Here was this crazy geologist. I started to work on an ice age atmospheric
I finally got up enough nerve to ask the people in charge of the program,
“How is it that I got here? That you decided on a geologist?”
My knowledge base was very different. It didn’t match up with
everybody else that was there. There was no one at the entire institution
paying attention to Earth history.
She said, “Well, Cray—” Seymour Cray, Cray [Computer
Corporation] supercomputers, had given them the six fellowships but
had told them that they had to accept one oddball. So for all I know
I was the only oddball that even applied and they breathed a sigh
of relief and said, “Oh, thank goodness, there’s an oddball
we can accept and follow through on this.”
I brought my maps of the way the Earth looked 50 million years ago
and 100 million years ago, and I went around the institution showing
people those maps, and talking about whether or not we could do a
climate simulation for 100 million years ago, 50 million years ago.
I found people there like Warren Washington who were very interested
in the problem and what it might mean for doing climate simulation.
So they invited me back.
This was a crossover between geosciences and atmospheric sciences
and ocean sciences, because I couldn’t do my simulations without
having this background that crossed three different disciplines.
They invited me back each summer. I worked on my dissertation there.
They gave me a postdoc [post-doctoral], and they gave me a job as
a Scientist I and then a Scientist II. Wonderful institution that
provided great opportunity, changed my life.
Then it turned out that there was a committee at that very same time,
quite famous, creating the Earth System Science Report, and focusing
on these same topics. A number of institutions decided that this approach
to Earth System Science was about to take off. I’m a young guy,
I’m 35 years old, I’m not that far out of my PhD, but
Penn State [Pennsylvania State University, University Park, Pennsylvania]
decided that this had a lot of merit, and that they were going to
create an Earth System Science Center. It was the first Earth System
Science Center to come up, and they were going to connect their departments
in atmospheric sciences with ocean sciences, with geosciences, with
I looked at an advertisement that they had in journals like Eos for
a Director of the Earth System Science Center. I read it; I said this
is a great idea, its time has come, we’ve got to promote these
intersections between these different disciplines if we’re going
to get anywhere, I’m going to look forward to watching them
do this. But I wasn’t going to apply, I was just too young in
I got a phone call from a Harvard [University, Cambridge, Massachusetts]
professor, Dick Holland, who was spending the year at Penn State helping
them get it organized and seek a Director. He said, “Eric, I
want you to come up and give a talk at Penn State.”
I said, “Dick, I’d love to come give a talk at Penn State.”
He said, “To be truthful, we want to look you over for possibly
being the Director of the brand-new Earth System Science Center. We’re
going to hire a group of about ten faculty. Got a new model. We’re
going to promote this intersection between all these disciplines.
We want you to come do this.”
So I interviewed. I had a great time. I called my wife up on the phone
and I said, “Look, these people know what they’re doing,
they’ve got a vision for the future, it’s smart. I just
don’t think they’re going to offer this job to me, but
as soon as they offer the job and get a Director I’m going to
call up the Director and say hey, I would love to be one of these
ten faculty hires.” But they turned around and offered me the
job as Director. Again, I said, “Well, you took a bit of a risk
there, because I’m really five and a half years out of my doctorate,
and I’m sure you had a lot of very experienced people.”
The dean, John Dutton said, “We had a lot of experienced people
who were experienced in one discipline. We didn’t have people
that we felt could communicate with more than one discipline. You
have gone from geology to oceanography to atmospheric sciences and
climate, and we could tell you were comfortable talking with people
in the departments. The biggest job we see is, how do you get all
these departments talking to each other?” So that started the
Earth System Science Center at Penn State, which just blossomed into
a wonderful entity and grew beyond Earth System Science to a broader
institute and a large number of people participating and many more
than ten positions that were hired eventually at Penn State.
you become involved with the [Bretherton] Committee’s work or
when NASA was pulling this together?
Bretherton Committee’s Report came out, and I keep the document
to this day, maybe for its historical significance. I still have one
that’s still in its plastic never opened because I just figure
that someday I’m going to want to go back and look at it and
think about it. That spurred all sorts of different activities and
focal points, including changing how advice was given to the federal
government, particularly in the National Academy of Sciences. What
you saw emerging was a Climate Research Committee out of the National
Academy of Sciences, the Board on Atmospheric Sciences and Climate,
the Committee on Global Change Research. The Committee on Global Change
Research had many different manifestations. The name changed several
times during its history, but you had those three groups, and then
some others, that all began to interact within the same arena.
Very shortly after I became Director, I got asked to chair the Climate
Research Committee, which made me a member of the Board on Atmospheric
Sciences and Climate, and also made me a member of the Committee on
Global Change Research. I view those committees as the ones that stepped
in following the Bretherton Report specifically to look and evaluate
many different programs, so I had responsibility as chair of the committee
for looking at all the world climate research efforts.
The Committee on Global Change Research had a focal point on all the
international geosphere-biosphere projects and the US Global Change
Research Program. So we really jumped from the Earth System Science
Report to all of these different manifestations of projects within
the federal government and internationally. They began to take off
from that vision.
I don’t think I actually would have been so involved in those
except I became Director of the Earth System Science Center [at Penn
State]. Because I became Director of the Earth System Science Center,
people viewed this as a commitment to an area, as being from a place
that was actually doing these activities, and even though I was a
relative youngster, Penn State must have hired me for some reason.
I ended up getting very involved in those activities and from there
very involved in NASA Earth System Science activities.
1992 you took a committee membership under the [NASA] Earth Science
and Applications Advisory Committee and stayed on that committee for
a number of years.
was actually chair for a short period of time. During Shelby [G.]
Tilford’s last year as the Associate Administrator for Earth
Science, I was the chair of that particular committee. Actually I
was on it for a period of time and then left and came back on it again
when [Charles F.] Charlie Kennel was the Associate Administrator.
had the opportunity to be there as the [NASA] Administrators were
changing and during the [Daniel S.] Dan Goldin restructuring effort.
Can you tell us about your involvement or what input or influence
you had on some of the decisions he made regarding Earth Science?
would say that there are a lot of different elements to this. When
I was Director of the Earth System Science Center, I wrote a proposal
and became PI [principal investigator] on one of the interdisciplinary
programs for the Earth Observing System [EOS]. The one that I worked
on, I think it was called climate and hydrology, but I was on this
working group. Then I got elected as the chair of the Science Executive
Committee for EOS, and I held that position for quite a while. So
whenever we were having a discussion about the Earth Observing System,
almost all of the scientific questions and how they matched up with
instruments and launch schedules came to the Science Executive Committee.
Most people don’t realize that every six weeks we met in the
Chicago airport from all across the country and I was chairing these
meetings, so that was truly interesting.
I was coming at the NASA issues from a viewpoint of being involved
in the National Academy committees because I was chair of those sets
of committees for a string of about 13 years, different committees,
different terms, what they called ESSAAC, [Earth System Science and
Applications Advisory Committee], the advisory committee, and the
Science Executive Committee for EOS. I would say that this is a period
for which what was going on at NASA was under constant review, and
constantly changing parameters. We began with a vision where there’s
one rocket sent up into space and we needed to design many instruments
to fit on it. The reason why we focused on a mega constellation was
because we were taking advantage of the launch vehicle, and because
we wanted to measure things simultaneously. We also planned on making
copies one right after another, so that we would have a continuity
of measurement in five year increments, always eyes in space looking
back at the Earth for all the things you want to measure - a long-term,
robust, continuous, consistent effort.
Many things happened through this time period, one of which was we
couldn’t afford everything that everybody wanted to do. Of course
this always happens. I would say there was repeated scientific scrubbing
plans and many discussions among ourselves about what we could launch
and what we couldn’t launch and what would fall off the table.
I would say this was a lot of scientific stress that we were imposing
on ourselves as a community. So that’s one element.
Another element was that the budget projections also began to change.
We began with this picture of growth that this would continue and
our effort would continue to expand, and NASA would attract young
scientists one right after another, and even though they had these
existing interdisciplinary teams and specific teams focused on instruments
and combination of measurements, it would remain a land of opportunity
for many many scientists to write proposals.
What occurred was the budget started to become much more conservative,
and we lost the opportunity to add new people. NASA’s idea was
that they would give the scientists five, ten years to work on this
problem because they knew it was a big problem, and it wasn’t
going to be the one-year grant or the three-year grant, the typical
way things would go. They would tell a whole team of scientists, “We’re
going to give you a decade to work on this project.” I actually
think that it was a brilliant, much needed strategy, because that
is the type of problem that they had. You still had accountability
but you had to have people committed for careers to work on this.
When the budgets got tight, the rest of the community started to say,
“Why do these people have a free ride for ten years and we can’t
even get aboard? We didn’t know that when the first call for
proposals came that that was it, that if we didn’t get on the
train then we weren’t going to be able to get on the train.”
It was never intended that no one else could get on the train.
We began to see the long-term approach lose political and scientific
support, from the viewpoint of why we weren’t going to have
new instruments come online, why do we have to just make copies, we’re
going to not have technological evolution, we’re not going to
be able to get different scientists on board, we shouldn’t have
these long-term projects, we should go back to commitments that are
three years or five years or two years or whatever else. The budget
was clamping down, and I would say this is the same time we have this
transition to the Goldin era of NASA where we had cheaper, better,
faster and a focus on technology, because the budgets were getting
carried away, and NASA had too much on its plate.
We went from this big vision - long-term, continuous. Well, other
launch vehicles also became options. We didn’t have them at
the beginning; we couldn’t design anything different than what
was actually designed. I didn’t do the design myself. I was
focused on the science. We really watched that evolution occur where
the vision began, I think, to stumble because the long-term commitment
was harder to come by.
Now lots got done. Wonderful instruments got launched, but today we
struggle mightily with how to not go backwards. There’s every
sign from the last five years of budgeting that what we have in space
will be less than what we had if you go back a decade.
But it was a grand plan and a grand scheme, and the objectives are
still good ones. I don’t think they’re ever going to go
away. Not for decades.
years that you served on those various committees, how did they assist
each other in furthering the concepts of Earth System Science? Then
yet again, were there times where different committees had maybe just
a little bit of a different goal that might have caused non-advancement
of the goals?
there’s no doubt about it that every time the budget gets tight
you then move from working to do things synergistically and try to
combine efforts and take advantage of it to one where you become a
little bit more competitive. So there’s no doubt that we became
more competitive because you start to think about what’s going
to fall off.
In my mind the investment in the synergy of the observations also
lost ground because of this same reason. I’ve got my instrument,
and I want to do my measurements, and I want to do them the best that
I can. Here’s somebody else with an instrument, and that’s
what they want to do. Then, there is the vision that by combining
these measurements we can finally solve a problem, like understanding
clouds. Go back to 1968, and you can read articles about the biggest
problem in trying to simulate future climate is related to clouds,
and you can go a year ago and read, “The biggest problem that
we have in solving our ability to simulate future climates is clouds.”
That’s because they’re very complicated and you have to
have multiple measurements going on at the same time.
But then consider - I’m trying to get my own piece done, but
there isn’t enough to go around? I’m barely getting my
own piece done. We didn’t have the capability to bring the other
pieces into the fold? So we really lost two things. We lost the strategy
for continuous measurement, which was part of the linchpins of EOS
because we’re struggling mightily to get things back up there
before we lose datasets—and I don’t care what dataset
it is. Over and over again. Whether it’s Earth radiation observations,
whether it is ocean color, whether it’s—every single measurement
you’re struggling to keep them going.
That’s one thing we lost, and the other thing we lost is the
dream of really doing all those synergistic observations. A lot is
happening, I’m not saying a lot is not happening. But, we didn’t
get to realize the dream was when the dream was within our grasp.
It’s interesting. Such great science, great things. That little
bit of delta in the amount of money, and we would have gotten a lot
of cream that we didn’t get.
so interesting for us to hear how you happened to be basically in
the right place at the right time that all this was starting to evolve,
and you had set yourself in motion to be there.
seems like luck to me. I think the door opened and I walked through
it, even though I had a perfectly nice environment. But still the
door opened so I decided to walk through it, and lots of fun things
happened because of it.
those times, especially when you began as Director of that first center,
and building that staff, did you find resistance or hesitancy from
the “old school” of thought which said you needed to stay
within your discipline?
But it was actually set up in a very clever way. I give a lot of credit
to people like John [A.] Dutton at Penn State who thought about it
and had multiple purposes in what he was thinking about. I think his
view was that some of his departments had aged and he needed to revitalize
them. He didn’t want to give these faculty positions to a department
that had aged, because they might go and just do what they had been
doing, and the Earth System Science Center concept was there at the
same time. Perhaps because of that, the plan that we worked out was
that the money for the faculty positions would sit outside the departments
and I would work with the department to hire somebody new. If the
department liked the person and I liked the person then we would hire
the person and I would actually transfer the money out of my budget
into the department’s budget. There was an enormous amount of
incentive for a department to work with me because they could get
a new faculty hire, and from my viewpoint and I think from the dean’s
viewpoint that faculty hire was unlikely to be like any other faculty
hire that they would have done by themselves, because we were out
after a different kind of purpose.
The other thing is that we learned a lesson from the environmental
focus that occurred 10 and 20 years earlier, because the universities
that created environment programs, they tended to fall flat, because
the faculty were viewed as too shallow, too spread out among different
disciplines, and they had trouble getting tenure within the typical
silos of the university. But we said from the beginning that the department
wants to hire this person, the department has already agreed that
they want this person on board. If the person left, I got the money
back to start over again. This was like this little engine that you
put in the middle of a structure of departments that could help motivate
moving in new directions without being threatening to the departments.
I also told the departments that if those faculty brought in research
dollars, which they had to do, I would let the department count it.
The department could do a regular teaching program. I said, “I’m
not going to count this on the Center ledger. Instead, I’m going
to energize this, I’m going to facilitate this.” Then
I asked the dean, “Can we double-count? I’ll tell you
what my impact is, but when it comes to the university’s statistics
and evaluating the departments, the departments get to count all their
faculty, including the ones that are mine that I transferred the money
over.” That became an economic benefit to the departments.
The people we brought in were exceptional. They were put up for Presidential
Young Investigator Awards. They got all sorts of grants and contracts.
We had two [David and Lucile] Packard [Fellowship] awardees. Here’s
this little program and I think we had our third Packard nominee.
Only the top 50 universities in the country can nominate someone,
and they can only nominate two. Here’s this huge university,
and in three years I had three nominees. It’s because even the
people that were attracted to come into that environment realized
it was different. The money came from an Earth System Science Center
[because] we want you to focus on the frontiers. But I have a home
in a traditional department. This was an experiment, so you got people
that liked to think of themselves really as part of that cutting edge.
Sometimes there was resistance. We interviewed in my view a hotshot
scientist doing a postdoc and he worked on the ice caps and ice cores
and modeling ice sheets. He had a lot of papers even though he was
very young and I really wanted to hire him. The Geosciences Department
said no, that he was too far afield, that ice didn’t have a
home anywhere, and that he wouldn’t be able to attract students,
and so he would feel uncomfortable and he would have no one to partner
with. The young man’s name was Richard Alley, who is now one
of the most renowned glaciologists in the world, and a member of the
National Academy of Sciences, and he has a whole team at Penn State.
He would not have been hired by that department if it wasn’t
for the Earth System Science Center, and initially the department
I went to the department and said, “Come on, he’s free.
I will give you all the money for him. I will pay for the startup.
He’s free. Take a chance.” So they turned around and voted
yes, and look what happened. Now this to me is this dream of what
you want for Earth System Science, to have all these disciplines together.
He brought in seismics coming from one scientist and chemistry coming
from a different direction, and all of a sudden ice cores become this
tremendous and exciting laboratory. That’s what made the Earth
System Science Center a lot of fun, because you could bring in really
interesting different people that were working on problems that everybody
knew were important. So it was good.
There was some resistance, but a model that helped you overcome it.
I said, “Departments, you take all the credit. I’ll provide
the money, you provide the tenure-track line.” Good model.
in there you managed to get your doctorate degree.
had my doctorate before going off to do all that, 1980.
was curious. I notice you got a prize for having the most creative
did. But see, this was crossing two disciplines. The fact that I was
working in two different departments in the geology side and the atmospheric
sciences, physical oceanography side got me an award for the most
creative dissertation. Same sort of idea, isn’t it? Just because
early on I got the opportunity to experiment and go take classes that
were out of the realm of the main stream of classes in my field.
At the end of my graduate school career I was still taking classes,
because they were free. Even when I went off to NCAR as a postdoc
I took a class at the University of Colorado. I was still trying to
get the background in more than one discipline, because that’s
not how I was trained at the beginning. I wish I’d been clever
enough to think of it at the beginning. I could have been really well
seems from everything you said so far that multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary
are keys to making this whole concept benefit the whole—
will tell you flat out that I would never ever have had the career
I’ve had if I hadn’t crossed two disciplines. Never would
have happened. I can’t imagine I’d be a university president
[Florida State University]. I became dean because more than one department
saw how I operated the Earth System Science Center. They realized
I was out there to promote more than one department, it wasn’t
just me standing there thinking that my one department was the great
department. I wanted all my partners to be great. Everybody liked
the way that worked. They said for a long time, “You’re
going to be dean, you’re going to be dean.”
I don’t know, I like my research career, I got a lot of grants
and contracts, I got great students, they’re going off, taking
faculty positions, this is a pretty good life. But I became dean.
I had a wonderful experience in being dean, and you get to go to the
You can imagine what it would be like to have gone to NCAR as the
oddball, and then 28 years later to go back as a Director  to
run the whole place. It is an interesting world.
you went back, [NCAR] had some budget issues,
are a lot of budget issues. There are budget issues everywhere. We
basically watched the Earth Observing System and the difficulties
with that budget actually transform the project. At Penn State as
a dean, we were having to give back money because this was a time
where states started to believe less in the public good of education
and their contributions began to decline and university tuitions started
to go up. I would say that for that period of time, that last eight
years or so was a time where I don’t know of any institution
that wasn’t struggling with its resources, because the public
dollar was declining. Not as easy to come by.
NCAR was in that mode, but I think NCAR was a special situation. The
topics were so important, and you see the climate issues all emerging,
and their significance, or the importance of severe weather. The importance
of improving our ability to predict weather and climate and observe
them. So you had this anticipation that, “oh yeah, this was
a bad budget but next year will be better. Next year has got to be
better. Look how important this is to society. I think people started
to not solve the budget problems as they came along because they thought
the next year would be better, so the problems began to build up until
you had to do something about it.
I walked into the NCAR job and within three weeks I was told that
I had to cut about eight to ten percent of the budget. It wasn’t
my most fun time, but we came out of it quite well in my opinion.
like you have a lot of experience talking to people about budget declines.
I know that all your years working with NASA on its committees there’s
a number of times that you’ve addressed [US] Congress. Could
you share with us those experiences of trying to talk to subcommittees
about the fact that budgets need to be adjusted?
we’re probably not the most famous group for being good communicators.
I think that if you look, once we launch something or do something
we never want to give it up. We always want more. I do believe the
strategies that we had were to go in and talk about the new things
we wanted and what we wanted more, and you could sense Congress through
that period of time going yes, and [asking] what are you going to
give up. We never wanted to give up anything.
I do think it became very important to start to move to a mode of
what the impact of the science was going to be, what the value of
it was going to be. You start to also realize that topics like climate
became politically very sensitive and a political controversy that
is quite frankly much greater than the scientific evidence would allow;
I always note that a conversation among scientists is very different
if it was outside of the press. It also became a lot more important
to talk about how it is that you gain value across society not just
from this one issue but from many many different issues.
I think part of this dream for how Earth System Science works is that
you have put enough information at your fingertips from many different
sources and create an ability to predict the future that is applicable
to any problem. You have an atmospheric chemistry problem, you have
the simulation of the atmosphere done well enough that you can add
the chemical reactions and come up to a solution to that problem,
or realize that you need this observation, and if you have it coupled
with these tools you can go out there and solve it.
My view was the notion of it wasn’t just we can combine these
disciplines and have a whole Earth view. I thought the beauty of it
was that we would have the tools to be able to predict the future
to solve all sorts of different problems from society, whether it’s
what’s going to happen because of a volcanic eruption, what
happens because of some new chemistry that’s a fumigant for
pests, what might happen because X happens to the ocean, or an oil
spill and where will it go. It’s phenomenal to think that we
struggle to decide where that oil is going to go, and do we don’t
have a clue what’s going to happen when a hurricane hits and
interacts with the oil spill, and the answer is no we don’t
know. We didn’t quite get that far, but I thought that was really
what the beauty of the whole Earth system effort.
That would mean that we can now promote economic vitality because
we have a much better sense of how storms will evolve. We can promote
safety and protect property much better because we’ve increased
our predictive skills in a different way. We can be better stewards
of the environment. But, we haven’t quite gotten there.
I think in going and talking to a lot of Congressional committees
a part of this was to switch from some specific pieces of science
that people didn’t understand what you were talking about, and
this notion of “we must save the Earth” because of climate
change, to one which is we can have a very broad impact on society
because we’ll develop the observational capability and the predictive
capability that we can help solve problems from all sorts of different
directions. That was my attitude. As time went on, I felt more and
more strongly that that’s what we should be striving for.
can always be an issue, but there are other challenges associated
with trying to reach some of those objectives. Can you give us some
examples from the last 20 years that have been addressed as you try
collectively to move toward some of the goals that you just described?
I think this notion of your approach to the problem between a very
big science and fostering a lot of little science, one of the things
that became a challenge was to do both. You might think of that as
a money problem but it’s not really a money problem. It’s
a difference in philosophy of how you’re working with huge teams
or whether or not you work as individuals. I think there was a tremendous
challenge in the fact that you got a sense that science for the Earth
was being prioritized. There were some areas of science that were
starting to drop off the table much more quickly than I think people
Again you could call that a money problem if you wanted to, but some
of those problems were so big and so comprehensive that people began
to say, “And why do we need to know about how the continents
moved so accurately? Studying deeper time in Earth history to understand
how climate changed, does that actually have any particular value?
Volcanic eruptions are infrequent; do we really need to have something
that’s deployable to catch them when they do happen, when we
have all these other issues that are there?”
So you began to prioritize science. There was one National Academy
panel that I was on that was called Grand Challenges in the Environment
and it was like a Noah’s ark of science. Two from each discipline
that were coming on board to discuss what the grand challenges were.
My view was people started to become very protective about their own
area. You would even hear someone say, “Climate has enough money,
it’s time for us to do this.”
In the social sciences there was this constant notion that social
sciences were going to emerge as a full partner to the physical sciences.
I heard it for a decade. It never happened. Just never happened. There
was never the investment, nor did you find enough people who were
willing to say, “We absolutely have to know how the physical-chemical-biological
system interacts with the human system.”
You wade through all the documents through time, and you’ll
see the same statement, that it will emerge at a time that social
systems have the same kind of importance. The language barriers there
were huge. They were just huge. It’s not just language. The
approach to science hugely differs. There were a lot of things there.
The big science, the little science. The whole notion—we had
to prioritize. We’re so used to going in and saying, “This
is what we need, this is the next thing we need, this is the next
thing we need,” and we moved into this realm of saying, “These
problems are more important in studying the Earth than these other
problems.” You have to do it, and if you don’t do it somebody
will do it for you. But the scientific community had to step up to
do that. A big challenge.
Then some of these things we just didn’t manage, like crossing
over to the social sciences. Still a big problem. People are getting
better at it, but the investment in the human side of the equation
is a small fraction of what anybody thought it would be, even 15 years
ago. They thought that it would be 100 times bigger than what it is
you were also working with this. How did that differ from what you
were doing with your colleagues within the States?
was interesting was the discussion about whether you could build this
great constellation of observations and not do something in the US
because the French were going to do it or the European Space Agency
was going to do it or Japan was going to do it. There was a huge amount
of pressure, I think, to make international agreements as a way to
get more, but a huge resistance to letting another nation do a set
of observations when we wanted to do them within the US. Arguments
constantly were this instrument is more tuned to exactly what we want.
We have more control over the data. That instrument might not be as
good. We’re not involved in the quality control. Very interesting
Then it had on top of that, quite sadly—could the US be trusted
as a partner? We were in this process over that period of time of
knocking things off our list because the budgets were tighter and
we were moving to cheaper, faster, better. And we weren’t in
this cheaper, faster, better mode, we were also in this, how much
can we measure at one time and how long can we do it [mode]. So things
were pried off the list.
Then we’d have an international agreement about it and then
we couldn’t satisfy the international agreement. So a lot of
discussion there. Some good partnerships. TOPEX/Poseidon [satellite]
is a perfect example of a great partnership that emerged, so there
were good ones. But it was a challenge because there was constant
worry that a piece of the puzzle would be lost because some partner
wouldn’t step up on quality, wouldn’t step up on data
accessibility, wouldn’t step up on the parameters that they
had decided that would control the characteristics of the measurement,
or that someone would renege on their agreement.
The worry was most of the time US would renege on the agreement because
we were losing ground, not gaining ground.
this last 20, 25 years, you have seen data being collected in different
ways, but it’s also been exchanged in different ways. Again
interdisciplinary and internationally. How has this worked? Do you
feel like it is continually evolving? Or do you feel like it has reached
challenges that might need to have [the plan] altered to have this
data shared among all these partners?
is also the case of dream versus reality versus we actually did okay
even though it wasn’t as good as we thought we were going to
do. From the beginning there was this notion that the data system
should be as robust an investment as the investment in instruments,
so this notion of the EOSDIS, Earth Observing System Data and Information
System, came into being with really a massive budget.
This was being done in private companies. The scientific community
began to get truly depressed that it was not going to be there and
that it wasn’t going to be what everybody wanted because one
of the other keys to this was this notion that NASA was for the select
few. People used to say that if you were part of the NASA team, NASA
wards, you had access to the data, this was your world, and that there
were thousands of scientists who could take advantage of NASA data
if it was accessible and they could trust it for what they wanted
to use. This was another key to Earth System Science, that “my”
data [was available so] you could go grab, [and] believe that you
had something that was good, and understand how it was developed.
You could reach into this data and information system and pull it
out knowing it had gone through all these steps and quality control.
This was a huge lofty goal, again from people that had an enormous
amount of vision. There was a challenge in delivering this, because
I guess you could say it was on the leading edge of data system development.
The notion also was that this could cross the world and others could
make their datasets accessible. NASA even was helping design a journal
called Earth Interactions. I was the first editor. It was an electronic
journal. The notion was you could put your datasets in there. You
could provide access to data in an electronic journal.
This truly was revolutionary thinking that was occurring all at one
time, not only this comprehensive set of intersecting observations,
but to be able to reach in and trust the data. The scientific community
got really upset because we were worried there wouldn’t be anything
by the time it launched that worked and functioned. We almost went
in near revolt. Now you can go get the data. It’s not quite
what we dreamed. We do have to have different agreements with different
countries, and some countries want to charge for things, and we believe
in open and free access. Some countries don’t want you to have
any data over their country because they don’t know what that
is actually going to mean. There are still a lot of challenges there.
But again the vision was probably a little bit bigger than what the
budgets would let us do, especially as they began to go down.
few years ago you were part of a NASA Vision Panel for the American
Geophysical Union (AGU). What is your process when you start to develop
a vision that’s going to be affecting an agency or a group?
like to have some great credit for myself that I’m sitting there
thinking with some level of vision, but, I often think of myself as
a great big sponge listening to all sorts of different things that
are going on and then seeing how those can come together into something
which you can actually take that next step.
I like setting the goal and then saying, “Are there concrete
actions that get me to those goals?” I suspect that may also
be part of the reason why I was a dean and director of a national
lab and then the president of a university, because I like thinking
that way. “What’s your objective? Can you come up with
the concrete actions to get yourself there?”
The vision committee from AGU was perhaps a little bit different because
to be quite frank, AGU had a very specific challenge, AGU is a very
broad society and mission to Mars has a great deal of appeal. At the
same time everybody believed that NASA couldn’t afford Space
Station, human spaceflight, Earth Observing System, advanced rocket
technology. They could not afford everything.
If you added to that Mission to Mars and didn’t give NASA any
more money—and nobody believed the US Congress was going to
provide any more money—a) you were going to fail at all of them,
and b) the presidential initiative was going to eat the lunch of something
else and everybody believed it was Earth Sciences. So, that says:
vision committee. How do you make the case that all the contributions
of NASA in Earth Sciences were so fundamental and had such a big impact
that you dare not have it degrade any further while the AGU also thought
Mission to Mars was a noble objective?
I don’t know whether you call that a vision committee or not.
I call it walking a tightrope committee.
were there actually before the beginning [of Earth System Science].
When you look back over the last couple decades, what do you feel
are some of the greatest accomplishments that have come out of this
era of seeing the Earth as a system?
know something? I read that question. I didn’t have time to
look at all of your questions very much just because my life is a
very hectic one. But I started to think about it, and I didn’t
want to go grab one specific thing or five specific things. If I go
back to something I said before, this notion of being able to anticipate
the future, to be able to do better predictions, my view is almost
nothing matches that in terms of an accomplishment, because that’s
what makes society, people, powerful, is if they can anticipate what’s
going to happen next. We use it constantly in everything we’re
doing. We’re trying to anticipate what’s going to happen
next, because if we can anticipate well, you can either make money
off of it, or you can protect life and property as I said, or you
can be a good environmental steward.
My view is that the development of these predictive models probably
tells you more about the evolution of science over the last 20 years
than anything else. It’s not the “aha” moments,
it’s how well can we predict a storm. The mere fact that the
experimental models nailed the path of [Hurricane] Katrina—it
was dead on, days in advance—tells you how powerful the tools
are that scientists are developing. The fact that we can actually
simulate the record for the last 100 years if we say what the Sun
is doing, what aerosols are doing, and what greenhouse gases are doing,
and we can simulate that track of 100 years, is an extraordinary development.
It is not an “aha” or “look at this great discovery.”
It is literally hundreds of people working together on parts of something
that they are then putting in as teamwork to develop the next version
and the next version with advancements, going back and testing it
against the observations, and then saying it’s not good enough
and making the next improvement. So I don’t really see that
the 20 years has got the great discovery, the “aha” moment.
I see it as the things to be most proud of are these very deliberate
collaborative things that are yielding tools that could have an enormous
amount of impact.
Those models have evolved a lot in those 20 years, and you couldn’t
do it without all those observations. You just could not do it.
is your hope for possibly the next 20 years, if you could have that
vision and choose a path?
think the next thing—is maybe a true Earth System Science—because
I don’t think we got there. I think as you heard me say, we’ve
had the big dreams, we set the stage, we didn’t get to realize
it in a lot of different ways. I think the thing that’s going
to change the most is that people are starting to realize that you
cannot put every bit of data for the entire globe together and we
are not yet ready to build a model of the Earth system that is global
that includes all the chemistry, all the biology, all the physics,
and everything else. It’s too massive, it’s too great.
Where the intersection actually is of all the pieces tends to be more
regional and local, because for a particular region, a river basin,
you probably can put all the data from every different discipline
at your fingertips. You probably can develop a high-resolution model
that includes all the different pieces and be within the computational
capability we have.
You can address a specific problem that has impact on humans. You
can sit there and say, “What happens if we change this land
use pattern, and it changes this flow rate, and this amount of nutrients
go into a bay, and then what happens to that bay?” The place
you can intersect all these disciplines is actually a smaller more
regional domain. In some ways that’s truly an Earth system approach,
because you put it all together.
My belief is that if you do that over a few areas of the US, people
will have—imagine having all the data at people’s fingertips,
a data and information system that makes it accessible, high-resolution
models that match up with that. Then when people want to go off and
do process studies, they want to work in that region and contribute
to the improvement of those models, because they have so much other
information at their fingertips, it helps them do their process study.
Then you can connect to society because you’re working on a
real problem. I think that’s the place that you could put it
together, and if you put it together well, I think we’ll have
so much predictive envy and data envy that we will actually grow a
bigger and more global picture from what we learn by taking a tractable
size in terms of dataset predictive capability that can sit on a modern-day
computer, and people, society, will see the value more.
Right now it’s very hard for them to see the value in this big
global picture. It’s very hard to say, “What dataset do
you want to give up?” when every dataset is important and you
want to add the next biology, or sit there and talk about somebody
wanting a genetic database to go with it so that you understand the
distribution of life-forms. It becomes so massive that it’s
hard to imagine that we can actually pull it off. So I think actually
how massive the problem is is holding back the integration.
Every time you advance the spatial resolution of a climate model,
so you get higher and higher spatial resolution in your prediction,
you get rid of parts of the science because it’s so hard to
get that higher resolution on a computer. Then you slowly add back
the biology and chemistry and things like that. You watch that path
repeated over and over again through time, and it makes you wonder
whether you can actually pull off the supermodel that some people
expect. My bet for 20 years—we’re going to have a huge
focus on regions to specifically solve problems, societal issues,
environmental issues. It’s all going to be hung on the big models,
but they’re going to telescope down to regions to help people
make decisions. If we get really good at it, it’ll make people
want to go all the way.
remember reading some of the discussion that’s been shared of
what you have participated in, and you made a comment about the potential
of NASA losing its leadership in its field. Talking just now about
these models, is that where NASA needs to go, is to leading that?
Or are there other organizations that you feel in the future NASA
needs to work with to create this?
this is another one of the great challenges that occurred through
this time period, because it all started in my view when the leadership
of four agencies had individuals in charge that could sit down together
and map a strategy of how to work together. So the people responsible
for the Earth-related enterprise in NASA, NSF [National Science Foundation],
DoE [Department of Energy] and NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Association] I think probably deserve a tremendous amount of credit
for having launched what got launched, because they were capable of
sitting down together and saying, “This is what we’re
going to do. We can do common budgets. You do this piece, I’ll
do this piece,” and have it work.
I hate to use this word, but I actually saw in a completely different
venue when you had three universities in a state who said, “We
need to do this to accomplish something,” and every single university
in the state said, “Me too, me too, me too, I have to be in
there.” They ended up with a new law but it was a garbage-pail
law, and included everybody, and everybody had their vote and their
say. This is how things evolved in the federal government, 16 different
groups became involved in setting the agenda for global change in
Earth System Science, and they had different views, and they had different
things that they wanted to do. It was no longer the powerful collaborative
that was coming out of there.
Here’s NASA with this massive amount of money going into this
area, and here’s another agency with this little bit of effort,
and they’re all at the table talking about it. In my view it
became much less successful. A lot of people went back and said, “We
have to have one agency that really focuses on these things.”
I think the key is the big players need to be able to sit down and
either work together or have somebody in the White House that’s
directing them to work together. You need a different kind of collaboration,
because we ended up with this garbage pail, and it became much less
So how do you return? I think you do have to have those big players
have responsibility for the agenda once again. That includes NASA.
know that we were talking about Congress earlier. In May of last year,
the American Clean Energy and Security Act was passed. Based on the
data that you know has been collected and the discussions that have
been held in the last 20 years, how much of that information do you
feel influenced the language of that bill to help set forth the goals
for the immediate future that that act is addressing for clean energy?
certainly all that science laid the background on the importance of
the problem. I think it’s also true that there are big pieces
of a bill like that—like if you start to have to keep track
of carbon and its impacts and outcomes, I don’t think we’re
ready to do it. So I think it’s also pointed out things that
we probably should have been able to do but because we lost the investment—I
had a number of staffers calling me up on the phone and saying, “I’d
like to say it this way. Can you do that? Can you verify that?”
I’ll say, “We’ve been doing everything we can to
protect the instruments that we have, and there’s no carbon
observing system, it’s not there. It was always part of the
dream, it’s not there. OCO [Orbiting Carbon Observatory] went
right into the drink. The rest of it has just been struggling to come
forth. We haven’t put the observations on the ground. It’s
been in decline for a period of time.”
I thought that those bills should be an opportunity to have dollars
that could be reinvested in research and reinvested in regions having
a better understanding of what their carbon budgets were and their
climates would be and their impacts would be.
know our time for this interview is growing short. You have a new
position as of January I believe.
[Florida State University, Tallahassee, Florida].
you have so much of all these other experiences. Are you still offering
or will be offering to NASA and to other agencies the life experiences
that you’ve had?
always want to. Whenever NASA calls, I always try to say yes, but
I have to be very careful. I have two things that I’ve been
doing right now. One is the NOAA Science Advisory Board. I’m
a member and I was a member before I took this job, and I want to
do my duty before I step down.
Then the second thing is I have been chairing a National Academy [of
Science] committee on what our ocean infrastructure should look like
30 years from now, because it takes a long time to develop that infrastructure.
You have to have a vision for what it might be like and what science
drivers there might be and therefore what types of ships or submersibles
or something else [are needed]. It is a very similar way of thinking
as from a lot of these other committees. I need to see that through.
But being the president of a university, there is no free time. So
it’s really a challenge [to do more]. It’s interesting,
because I often felt like I could go either way—I could just
focus on my discipline and continue to do that and direct something
like that. Or I could spend my time and effort focusing on education
and the success of faculty members and growing a research agenda.
I like both. I haven’t been in this job very long but I’m
enjoying it a lot. I doubt I’ll do more than the two committees
that I’m on right now for at least another year and a half until
I really understand this job and what I want to do.
sound pretty busy as it is. Is there anything else you’d like
to add that we might not have covered about challenges? And, Jennifer,
did you think of anything?
Can you give an example of what you meant by working with social sciences
of the fascinating things for a physical scientist is thinking you
know something about societal benefit. You would say something like
well, this must have huge interest to people, we’ve got to do
this, look at the impact it’s going to have on X or Y. Then
if you’re sitting there with a large group of social scientists
you realize that what people know and learn will actually change what
their behavior is. So how do you understand how that behavioral change
may take place?
One of the interesting things about uncertainties in climate models
is, we don’t know what the emissions will be in the future.
You can have a particular growth rate but you actually don’t
know how to factor human behavior, at which point they will switch
over and say no more Styrofoam cups or something, the way they did
with ozone. Changes in human behavior becomes an interesting component
of predicting the future.
There are psychological impacts that occur. If there’s an adverse
health outcome say, because you have a tropical disease delivered
by mosquitoes that is moving poleward, humans may actually change
what their behavior is and how they do things that could completely
mitigate the problem. So you see at the border of Texas and Mexico
on one side is a huge concern about dengue fever delivered by a mosquito,
aedes, and in Texas they have an occasional outbreak but they can
respond. A boundary between two countries is a boundary between an
area of serious outbreaks and a region where the disease is not so
prevalent. It’s because of human behavior, and also economics,
and providing alerts so that when there’s a risk you know it
and you don’t go out. All that begins to occur as a change in
human behavior. Institutions change and are capable of changing how
it is that you set up institutions that serve particular purposes.
This whole notion of sea level change, with all the humans living
at the coast, becomes decisions about whether you harden a boundary,
whether you move things back, whether you create preserves, whether
you create new laws, whether you change insurance policy and you no
longer insure somebody who’s been knocked down by a hurricane,
so you never do it again, and so no one wants to risk putting their
house on the beach anymore. You’ve changed the entire risk of
the coast to sea level change because long before sea level actually
increases enough storms occur that the insurance agencies change what
the rules are.
All of this human behavior has to be matched up to all this knowledge
about physical sciences.
Very interesting. Good examples. I had one other question. You talked
about budgetary challenges, but I was wondering if you could talk
about economics. There seems to be this great divide between growth
and development and what people see as—I don’t know, making
an impact on the environment. There seems to be this great divide
between the two. How can you approach it so you can move the two closer
really wish I knew the answer to that question. It’s fascinating
to sit there and take an example where you hear people say over and
over again, “We can’t do that because you’re going
to harm the economy. Can’t do that, it’s going to harm
Then you look at the other side of it which says, “We have this
obligation. We want clean air. All those issues are not particularly
important.” Well, I grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh,
when I was a little kid—I watched the slag being dumped from
the steel mills. The pollution was terrible. All sorts of new laws
went into effect, and Pittsburgh gets ranked as one of the most livable
cities in the country, and there is an economic boom that occurs there.
The “the sky is falling” scenario wasn’t true, and
the “we can’t do this because we’re harming the
economy” wasn’t true. The middle is actually much closer
to the truth. You want to drill in the Arctic. Economics, you’ve
got to do this, we’ve got to go tap this oil. You’re going
to harm the environment. Who says, “Can you guarantee to me
the technologies and the backup systems where you wouldn’t harm
this, so you can go get the oil? We can do that.” The same thing
goes with this Gulf [of Mexico] oil spill . There were in place
things that were skipped that would have prevented that from happening.
There could have been a relief [oil] well, even though it cost more,
set up in advance so that it wouldn’t happen. We can do both.
I just think people have decided that the object is whether you win,
to pull it one way or another.
Neither “the sky is falling” nor the economic arguments,
they just don’t work. I’ve never seen them work. It’s
somewhere in the middle. I don’t know what it’ll take
before people quit playing tug-of-war and instead sit down and say,
“How can we solve this problem?”
That’s probably gotten worse in the last 20 years, worse than
any other issue that I can imagine, that it’s a tug-of-war:
I’m right or I’m wrong. I just don’t know of any
right and wrong problems like that. It’s an important issue.
I don’t know how to beat it back. Education would beat it back
but even that seems to be a challenge to pull off.