Sigma Xi, the scientific society, has awarded its prestigious William Procter Prize to Dr. Benjamin Santer, the eminent LLNL climatologist.
The prize, which previously was won by science luminaries ranging from Ernest Lawrence to Margaret Mead, recognizes contributions to both science and scientific communication.
Santer is internationally known for having pioneered methods of identifying the fingerprints of human contributions to climate change and distinguishing them from natural contributions.
He is personally committed to communicating the results of his research to a wide range of audiences, from the general public to interested professional groups.
He has not always felt that way. He first became deeply involved in public communication nearly a quarter-century ago as lead author of a major chapter of a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
It was an honor to be given such a responsible task in his early career, but the chapter’s consensus conclusion brought down a storm of criticism from industry-connected groups, including some well-known senior scientists.
Published in 1995, the conclusion -- that humans are probably influencing the climate in a discernible way – seems mild by today’s standards, when evidence of human-caused climate change is overwhelming.
Shockingly, much of the criticism was personal and accusatory rather than measured and technical in the time-honored style of scientific debate.
The experience forced Santer into an uncomfortable and unaccustomed role as a public communicator.
“I was a very junior scientist,” he recalled in an interview. “Up to then, I did not see myself as a communicator. I thought the best science was work that I could do myself.”
A serious outdoorsman, he was personally more comfortable climbing mountains than participating in public controversy.
However, “there was no putting the genie back in the bottle. There was a recognition that I would have to fight back, defend myself and my work.”
Speak up he did, supported by other authors of the climate report, by other climate scientists and by some institutions. One of the defenders of his work was Stanford’s Stephen Schneider, an eminent climate scientist who with astronomer Carl Sagan became a science communication role model for Santer.
In the years since then, Santer’s scientific excellence has been recognized through a number of honors such as a MacArthur Fellowship, an E.O. Lawrence award and election to the National Academy of Sciences.
So has the validity of the “human influence” finding, which has been verified and strengthened as research over the next quarter-century added more and more detail to what had been observed by 1995.
Santer often speaks publicly, including multiple times in the Tri-Valley. He has been an invited guest on television talk shows and frequently publishes climate commentary on the Scientific American website.
THREE TENORS OF CLIMATE CHANGE
Recently, he joined with two colleagues who have very different backgrounds to form a group half-facetiously called The Three Tenors of Climate Change. They communicate their views of the climate from very different points of view.
The others are Chip Duncan, a filmmaker, and Hernando Garzon, a Kaiser Permanente global health expert. The three have individual but ultimately converging stories to tell of their experiences with climate change and its consequences.
Despite the difficult experiences of the 1990s and the politicization of the field of climate research, Santer believes more firmly than ever that it is a worthy and important scientific field for bright young people to consider.
“This stuff matters,” he said. “It’s not like the science is ‘done and dusted.’ For example, we need a better understanding of the changes to be expected through the end of the century – whether they are likely to be at the low end of the scale, a rise of 1.5-2 degrees C., or the high-end, around 6 degrees C.”
He cites the need for developing ways to remove carbon from the atmosphere to reduce its greenhouse impact.
While much of today’s climate news can be discouraging, he is encouraged by reports of activist young people around the world demanding that their future world be protected.
“There are so many areas (to get involved in)… Embrace the challenge, use your voice, be fearless!”
Sigma Xi’s Procter Prize includes $10,000, half of which traditionally goes toward the career of a young scientist in the same field. Santer intends to contribute that half to a climate education program in Alaska where he taught for the past seven years, the Juneau Icefield Research Program.
He plans to contribute the other half to the National Center for Science Education in Oakland. Santer is on the Center’s Board of Directors and has great respect for its efforts to promote and defend evidence-based science education.
Sigma Xi itself is a scientific honor society founded at Cornell University in 1886. It has more than 500 chapters around the world.
JOINS FAMOUS NAMES
Besides E.O. Lawrence and Margaret Mead, previous recipients of the Procter Prize include such famous names in science as Karl Compton, Vannevar Bush, Jane Goodall, Dixy Lee Ray, Joshua Lederberg and Edward O. Wilson.
Santer is scheduled to receive the prize in November at the annual Sigma Xi meeting in Madison, Wisc. There, he will deliver the William Procter lecture to assembled scientists and engineers, as well as to several hundred high school, undergraduate and graduate students participating in the Society’s Student Research Conference.