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Science Advocate, Climate Change Authority Dies

Ralph Cicerone, former president of the National Academy of Sciences, has passed away at age 73.

Nov 7, 2016
Jef Akst

MARK FINKENSTAEDT/NATIONAL ACADEMY OF SCIENCESScience advocate Ralph Cicerone, a leader in atmospheric chemistry and climate change, died unexpectedly over the weekend (November 5) in his home in Short Hills, New Jersey, of an undisclosed cause. He was 73.

More than his contributions to any one field, Cicerone was known as a true leader of science. For more than a decade, he served as president of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), stepping down after his second term (the maximum allowed by the organization’s bylaws) this June. He was a regular voice in science policy debates as well as a vocal advocate for the use of scientific evidence “to inform government decision-making and public discourse,” according to an NAS statement.

“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,” Marcia McNutt, Cicerone’s successor as NAS president, said in the statement. “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’s specific achievements include the launch of the Gulf Research Program following the Deepwater Horizon disaster and the restoration and renovation of the historic NAS building in Washington, DC. In his own field, Cicerone’s work helped define the causes and consequences of global climate change. In 2011, for example, he oversaw the creation of a set of reports that called for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, among other strategies to slow the manmade effects of our changing climate.

“He was one of the true pioneers in showing how human activities are damaging our air,” Cicerone’s friend and colleague Veerabhadran Ramanathan of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography told The Washington Post. And then “he did something about it,” Ramanathan added—“he worked with policymakers.”

Even outside of his own area of expertise, Cicerone was active in discussions on the ethical and societal implications of new scientific technologies, most recently, CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing. Last year, he helped organize the International Human Gene Editing Summit to discuss the use of CRISPR and other precision gene editors in human somatic cells as well as in the germline.

“Ralph was a very, very steadying presence within the science community, trying to keep scientists on track, saying everything has to be sticking to the facts,” McNutt told The Washington Post. “It was so important to have a leader like that during these very contentious times.”

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

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