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Ralph Cicerone: Chemistry, baseball and politics

At one point in his career, Ralph Cicerone had to choose between being an atmospheric chemist and a baseball announcer, according to academic legend. He chose science over sport.

Cicerone is now the head of the National Academy of Sciences, after a successful career in the laboratory and as a university administrator. This July, the modest and seemingly unassuming scientist will have completed the first year of his six-year term as the head of an institution that is a major scientific voice in Washington, D.C., with a global impact.

World at his fingertips: Ralph Cicerone, president of the National Academy of Sciences, says he was surprised to find how often other countries approach the academy for assistance with their own science programs, whether in education, policy or research arenas. Photo is by Naomi Lubick.

Having grown up in a region of western Pennsylvania that was poorly developed with respect to education, Cicerone says, he was the first of his family to attend college. When he decided to go to MIT in Cambridge, Mass., he says, it was almost on a whim. Science was not quite his first passion — sports were, and Cicerone pitched for the MIT baseball team.

But he also enjoyed the challenge of electrical engineering, a field that had a lot of “buzz” when Cicerone was in school. He earned his electrical engineering degree in 1965, eight years after Sputnik was launched, at a time when the importance of science was “large in the national awareness,” Cicerone says. “My enthusiasm for science grew at MIT, and it has grown even more as I’ve gotten older.”

After completing his Ph.D. in electrical engineering at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, Cicerone entered atmospheric chemistry, a relatively young field in which little was known. In the early 1970s, Cicerone began working on chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, as part of a cadre of scientists working to establish the connection between the completely human-made chemicals and the destruction of ozone in the atmosphere. (Later, Cicerone’s colleague Sherwood Rowland and others would be granted the 1995 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for work on the issue.)

In the 1980s, while at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., Cicerone and Ron Oremland, a microbiologist at the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park, delved into the global methane budget. They conducted modeling to determine methane’s climate impacts and the human contributions of the greenhouse gas, compared with carbon dioxide.

“Scientifically, I view him as one of the first earth-systems scientists,” says Susan Trumbore, Cicerone’s colleague in the Earth System Science program at the University of California at Irvine (UCI). “The thing that’s unique to Ralph is that he can put [scientific issues] in a global perspective.” He is also part of a generation of scientists that first pointed out that humans can have global impacts, she says.

Ellen Druffel, a chemical oceanographer and colleague at UCI, points out that Cicerone also broke some traditional cultural barriers in that he followed his wife, Carol, a cognitive scientist. When the University of California in San Diego recruited Carol, he took a research position nearby at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif. (where, rumor has it, the San Diego Padres offered him a job announcing their games — which he attends whenever he can, Trumbore says). Both scientists were later recruited by UCI, where Cicerone established the geosciences program in 1989, moving on to become dean of physical sciences in 1994, and finally university chancellor in 1998.

“What’s made him successful at administration as well as science is a genuine interest in all kinds of things and people,” Trumbore says. His UCI colleagues joke about his habit of picking up trash as he walks across campus and correcting grammar and punctuation — “a civic sense of responsibility” and properness, Trumbore says, that represents Cicerone’s philosophy that “we’re all responsible for the quality of our surroundings and our world.”

Cicerone also has been willing to engage in controversy in science and its impacts on policy, his colleagues say. In 2001, he headed a U.S. panel appointed by the Bush administration to assess the third report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, delivering what Trumbore calls “a very carefully crafted response,” judging the science to be “unimpeachable,” outside of policy. More recently, Cicerone has steered the National Academy to review the validity of the “hockey stick” — a temperature curve with an abrupt increase coinciding with human industrial activities that landed its scientific authors before Congress to testify about their work last year (see Geotimes, September 2005).

Cicerone says that climate change is of particular concern to him at the moment, but so is the future of science publishing, K-12 science education, stem cells, nanomaterials, nuclear energy and a slew of other issues. “I like scientific variety, I don’t like politics,” he says, but his colleagues say that he is very good at politics. For the head of the National Academy, Trumbore says, “you need a diplomat, and he is diplomatic. He’s also politically astute.”

For now, politics dominate, and Cicerone has very little time for conducting his own science or for sports — either playing or watching (though he still enjoys watching women’s basketball in particular). His time now, he says, is spent on “maintaining the quality” of National Academy reports, and a “combination of trying to think of new things and anticipating new trends” in science and the world.

Naomi Lubick

"Congressional Climate: Changing or Chilling?" Geotimes, Political Scene, September 2005

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