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Gavin Schmidt

Gavin Schmidt

Christy Field

'Unflappable' Science 'Warrior' Chosen to Lead Key NASA Climate Lab

NASA today named Gavin Schmidt, 46, to lead the Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS), one of the world’s top climate research institutions. Schmidt, a climate modeler and current deputy director of the lab, follows in the footsteps of prominent climatologist James Hansen, who retired from the agency last year. Although Schmidt does not have quite the public name recognition of Hansen, he is known as one of the nation’s most visible communicators of climate science.

With more than 120 scientific publications to his name, Schmidt has earned the respect of his peers for his work as a climate modeler at GISS, with particular interests in paleoclimate and various drivers of modern climate. But he’s developed a much broader audience as an energetic spokesman for climate science, a role that seems destined to grow as he assumes his new job. He has been a voluminous contributor to RealClimate, for instance, a climate science blog that has garnered more than 15 million views since Schmidt and several colleagues founded it in 2004.

“Schmidt has readily embraced the role of brash culture warrior, not only mixing it up with ‘deniers’ in the blogosphere and on Twitter, but also with other scientists and experts with whom he disagrees,” says communications expert Matthew Nisbet of American University in Washington, D.C. “What will be interesting to watch as he assumes the role of GISS director will be how he balances or merges his media persona with his role as institutional leader and spokesperson.”

On RealClimate, Schmidt has not only sought to debunk papers or news stories he found problematic—like this attack on a report by an Argentinian nonprofit on food production—but also to publish primers on complex science topics, like this post on the role of water vapor. He’s also found regularly in the comments on the blog, where he answers technical questions from readers or battles commenters whose points he disagrees with or finds misleading.

“He has transformed the climate science dialogue on the Web and thereby elevated communication of this science among scientists, within the research community, and to the broader public,” said colleagues in a 2011 citation honoring Schmidt’s receipt of the inaugural Climate Communication Prize presented by the American Geophysical Union (AGU).  Schmidt has also sought to reach broader audiences, with appearances on David Letterman’s show, the comedy program The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and myriad television news programs. In 2009, he collaborated with photographers to publish Climate Change: Picturing the Science and has met with composers to brainstorm creating a symphony devoted to the planet’s climate history, though funding for that has yet to materialize.

“What is most impressive about him is that he can see the forest for the trees, and he seems to communicate effortlessly with either the public or scientific experts,” Hansen writes in an e-mail to ScienceInsider.

A big question around Schmidt’s ascendance at NASA will be how he views the role of scientists on policy questions. His former boss famously tussled repeatedly with NASA headquarters and the White House on questions of how climate science was presented and also became a staunch public advocate for political action on climate. In a well-attended lecture called “What should a climate scientist advocate for?” that Schmidt delivered last year at AGU, he argued that scientists should differentiate between statements that say what “is” versus statements that say what “ought” to be. “I don’t advocate for political solutions or technical solutions” on greenhouse gas emissions, Schmidt told ScienceInsider. “My expertise does not lie in that [area]. But I also see a lot of nonsense talked about in terms of the science, and that is certainly somewhere where my expertise allows for some greater context.”

Hansen, for his part, hopes Schmidt continues to tussle with those who attack mainstream climate science. “He is unflappable as demonstrated by his handling of the attacks from the climate change deniers.  They attacked him after he established Real Climate because they saw just how effective he could be in communicating a complex scientific story to the public.  However, in doing so they did him a favor, as the need to defend his actions schooled him for the job he needs to carry out,” Hansen says. Schmidt says public outreach will be part of his new job, though he hasn’t determined how much time he will spend on that role.

With a staff of about 140 and a yearly budget of about $12 million, GISS is one of NASA’s smallest institutions. But the institute regularly punches above its weight; many of the world’s top climate models are based on code written at GISS decades ago, and its models provide key insights into the way the planet’s climate system works.  Schmidt says he wants to continue that work, as well as expand its work on climate impacts and astrobiology. He also hopes the institute can win funding to launch a new polarimeter sensor to help quantify the role of aerosol particles in maintaining Earth’s radiation balance. Schmidt’s “challenge will be how to maintain high productivity in a time of constrained resources,” Hansen says.

More on Schmidt from the press release:

Schmidt received a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Oxford University in 1988 and a doctorate in applied mathematics from University College London in 1994. He came to New York as a 1996 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Postdoctoral Fellow in Climate and Global Change Research.

*Clarification, 10 June, 2 p.m.: The photo credit has been clarified.