Ralph Cicerone, National Academy of Sciences outgoing president.
Ralph Cicerone, outgoing president of the National Academy of Sciences. Credit: Randy Showstack

Ralph Cicerone, an atmospheric scientist and president of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS), retires today from the position he has held for two terms since 2005 as arguably the world’s most influential scientific opinion leader. Marine geophysicist Marcia McNutt, former editor in chief of the Science family of journals and former director of the U.S. Geological Survey, takes the reins on Friday, 1 July.

During a wide-ranging interview last week in Washington, D. C., about science and society, Cicerone discussed with Eos challenges that he and NAS faced during his tenure, including climate change and threats to science from political polarization. In the second article of this two-part series, to publish next week, Cicerone discusses international science, women and underrepresented minorities in science, and funding pressures.

Cicerone and the Academy

Reflecting on his outstanding accomplishments as NAS chief, Cicerone counts among them influential NAS studies about climate change. Other highlights include the establishment of a Gulf Research Program following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill and two visits to NAS by President Barack Obama. Established by Congress in 1863, the academy is a private nonprofit society that provides independent, objective advice to the nation on science and technology-related issues.

A number of top U.S. geoscientists told Eos they credit Cicerone with raising the academy’s stature and relevance, championing climate and environmental change studies, and making science more useful and accessible to policy makers and the public. For instance, Academy member Richard Alley of Pennsylvania State University in University Park said that Cicerone “has been a visionary leader for the Academy, strengthening its long-standing commitment to the very highest integrity while making the science more useful and accessible to policymakers and the public.”

Science in an Age of Political Partisanship

Cicerone told Eos that his biggest disappointment is the “rabid partisanship” surrounding climate change, which has included Congressional grilling of climate experts and officials. He also expressed concern about recent Congressional moves to limit geoscience funding at the U.S. National Science Foundation and elsewhere.

“The most frustrating thing has been these political developments around climate change.”

“The most frustrating thing has been these political developments around climate change,” said Cicerone, adding, “We are trashing our institutions. For example, the antigovernment feelings that anything the federal government touches is somehow dirty and wasteful and somehow morally wrong: this just drives me crazy.”

He said that some opposition to government traces to the American Revolution with people seeking local control, continued with President Ronald Reagan saying that government is the problem, and has extended with Republican resistance to White House initiatives on climate change and “an all-too-loud group of people who oppose any authority, especially based on expertise.”

“I could see this [divisiveness] developing,” Cicerone continued, “but I think the extreme statements that we’ve seen and the allegations that climate science is a fraud and that the geosciences as a field is partly culpable: this just blows my mind.”

Cicerone said that he “did not see the severity [of attacks on science] coming. I’m still hoping it’s going to go away quickly but it’s been hard to deal with because it has raised a whole set of questions. When do we have to stand up and say that all of science is being tarred with the same brush?”

Fortunately for science, according to Charles Kennel, past chair of the NAS Space Studies Board, no one has been better equipped than Cicerone “by temperament, judgment, and intelligence to have led American science through the period of unprecedented political division that fell to Ralph to cope with.”

Faith in the Scientific Method

Some solutions to the current political impasse lie in following the scientific method, improving science communication to the policy makers and the public, and publicizing scientific success stories, Cicerone said.

“The scientific method is just so broadly capable of self-correction that we have to stick with it. I also think we have to remind ourselves [of] what is good behavior and try to stick to it where we don’t automatically embark on any political message but try to review the facts and set examples. I think the scientific community is capable of leading much of the country out of this terrible partisanship by our methods,” Cicerone said.

“The scientific community is capable of leading much of the country out of this terrible partisanship by our methods.”

He cited the recent United Nations accord on climate change as a positive measure, saying that an “ingenious” aspect requires each nation to present its plan to reduce greenhouse emissions that gets revisited every 5 years.

“There is going to be imposed a high-level international technically competent review to see if the claims are being met [and] what is the rate of progress. This gets to the issues where other people have said over the years that if we really want all nations to contribute, there can’t be any BS here. The reduction of greenhouse gas emissions has to be verifiable, using modern technical means, which are really advanced.”

He added, “I know I’m sounding like a nerd here, but I really do see a good parallel between democratic agreements, democratic processes, and the scientific method. So that’s something I really think is smart out of the Paris [climate] accord.”

Looking for Other Potential Solutions

As one possible solution to the political divide, Cicerone suggested that the business community may want to weigh in and consider calling on the White House for stronger action on climate change. “What I’m hoping is that the current resistance to discussions [about climate change], which is largely the Republicans in the House and some in the Senate, that that is going to go away. I think the facts just keep piling [up]. Eventually, people are going to have to come around. The business community has been missing for the last 2 or 3 years. If you haven’t noticed, the business community is no longer the leader of the Republican Party. That could change in November.”

Cicerone, who is a former president of the American Geophysical Union—as is incoming president Marcia McNutt—also suggests that scientific success stories help boost the credibility of science. Such successes in a variety of areas, including nuclear waste management and space exploration, could have cascading effects in reducing political discord and public distrust of science, he said. “A couple of success stories along specific lines will be very valuable, because otherwise these fears and these hatreds are very hard to confront. I think the way to do it is to chip at it with some notable success stories. The same is true in stem-cell research and human gene editing,” Cicerone said.

As he exits the NAS presidency, a question lingers in his mind about how fast society can fix its mistakes, Cicerone said. He said that he has a lot of confidence in the self-correcting capability of science but wonders if science can help society quickly enough to correct its course. “Is something bad going to happen before something good happens? I think that’s the race that we are in.”

—Randy Showstack, Staff Writer


Showstack, R. (2016), Academy head says political rancor harms science, society, Eos, 97, https://doi.org/10.1029/2016EO055271. Published on 30 June 2016.

Text © 2016. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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