Ralph Cicerone, UC Irvine chancellor and a leading environmental scientist, will leave his post at the end of the next school year and is all but certain to become president of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences.
As chief of the fast-growing Orange County campus for six years, Cicerone is credited with continuing the university’s steady climb through the nation’s academic ranks in the midst of a state fiscal crisis.
“This is a huge and different opportunity to do some things I am excited about and that can make a difference.” Cicerone said Tuesday. “I am going to miss UCI, but I am excited for the challenge.”
Cicerone would assume control of the nation’s leading society of scientists, which boasts more than 190 Nobel Prize winners among its 2,000 members. The private, nonprofit organization conducts studies, many commissioned by Congress on high-profile topics such as stem-cell research and global warming.
Cicerone, 61, said he welcomes the opportunity to affect policy in Washington and believes politics has encroached too far into scientific research.
“I’m worried about the polarization in some sciences, and I want to work on communicating the value of science,” he said. “Our country has to have a reasoned basis for some of the decisions we are making” in fields such as the environment, medicine, census-taking and space exploration.
Before becoming UC Irvine’s fourth chancellor in 1998, Cicerone headed the university’s department of earth system science and served as dean of physical sciences.
Earlier in his career, the Pennsylvania native worked as a director at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado and taught at the University of Michigan. He earned his bachelor’s degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and his master’s and doctoral degrees at the University of Illinois in electrical engineering.
Cicerone is regarded as one of the country’s leading experts on global warming. He was elected to the Academy in 1990. In 2001, he headed a landmark study on climate change for the organization that concluded the planet has experienced relatively rapid temperature increases over the last 20 years and that much of the change has been caused by humans.
Cicerone’s announcement comes as officials at the University of California system struggle to hire new chancellors for UC Berkeley and UC Santa Cruz in the face of severe budget cutbacks.
“We are seeing high-level searches [at universities] across the country, and it is complicated for the UC system by our inability to pay competitive salaries,” said Michael Reese, a UC spokesman.
He estimated that UC chancellor salaries are 20% less than the national average. Cicerone earns $280,700 a year.
Reese said the search for Cicerone’s successor will not begin until the academy membership elects him Dec. 15.
A nominating committee has recommended that members elect Cicerone president. Members are entitled to make additional nominations, but none has ever done so in the academy’s 140-year history.
Despite three years of state cutbacks in funding, UC Irvine experienced significant growth under Cicerone. Reese said the university has made impressive gains, compared with other UC campuses, in the amount of federal research money its faculty receives. Since 1998 these grants have increased to $235 million a year from $126 million, a result, university officials said, of the hiring of many accomplished, high-profile researchers.
Reese said under Cicerone, the university pioneered innovative admissions programs, including one that guarantees entrance to any state high school senior who graduates in the top 4% of his class.
UC Irvine’s enrollment has grown more than 25%, to 24,000 students, under Cicerone.