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In Memoriam: Ralph J. Cicerone of the National Academy of Sciences

NAS President Ralph Cicerone
NAS President Emeritus Ralph J. Cicerone | National Academy of Sciences

AAAS today expressed deep sadness at the loss of Ralph J. Cicerone, National Academy of Sciences President Emeritus, an influential science leader and a world-renowned authority on atmospheric chemistry and climate change who died on November 5 at the age of 73.

Cicerone had served as the 21st president of the National Academy of Sciences from July 1, 2005 to June 30, 2016. He was elected as a Fellow of AAAS in 1981.

“Ralph was a kind and generous person,” said Rush Holt, CEO of AAAS and executive publisher of the Science family of journals. “He was a champion of science who helped scientists understand their obligations to society and helped non-scientists understand the importance of science to their lives, especially with respect to human induced changes of Earth’s climate.”

Marcia McNutt, current president of the National Academy of Sciences and former editor-in-chief of the Science family of journals, said in an official notice: “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. Ralph Cicerone was a model for all of us of not only doing what counts, but doing it with honesty, integrity, and deep passion.”

In a tribute posted to the Dot Earth blog of The New York Times, journalist Andrew Revkin wrote that “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.”

Of Cicerone’s lengthy and accomplished career, the National Academy of Sciences further reported:

Throughout his tenure, Cicerone was a steady voice for science in Washington, always maintaining a civilized and respectful dialogue with politicians and policymakers on some of the most challenging and controversial scientific issues of our time.  At the same time, he remained a strong advocate for independent scientific advice – the hallmark of the Academy since its founding in 1863 – to inform government decision-making and public discourse.

His significant milestones and accomplishments include the restoration and renovation of the historic National Academy of Sciences building on the National Mall, the creation of a $500 million Gulf Research Program following the Deepwater Horizon disaster, two visits to NAS by President Obama, and a number of influential studies that helped to define the causes, extent, and effects of global climate change.

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.

Prior to his election as president of the Academy, Cicerone served as chancellor of the University of California, Irvine from 1998 to 2005. He received a number of honorary degrees and many awards in recognition of his scientific work. He earned a B.S. degree in electrical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he was a varsity baseball player. His M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in electrical engineering, with a minor in physics, were from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Cicerone is survived by his wife Carol M. Cicerone, their daughter, and two grandchildren.