Stephen Pacala appointed to President Biden’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology

Morgan Kelly ・ High Meadows Environmental Institute

Stephen Pacala, Princeton’s Frederick D. Petrie Professor in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and an associated faculty member in the High Meadows Environmental Institute (HMEI), has been appointed to President Joseph R. Biden’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), the White House announced Sept. 22.

The council consists of leading scientists and engineers who are the sole advisors from outside the federal government to the President and the White House on policy related to science, technology and innovation, as well as on matters “needed to inform public policy relating to the economy, worker empowerment, education, energy, the environment, public health, national and homeland security, racial equity, and other topics.” PCAST members are Presidential appointees who serve without compensation, being reimbursed only for travel, meals and accommodations in accordance with government regulations.

“Science and technology must play a central role in solving most of the critical problems confronting the nation, from climate change and the energy transition, to pandemics and economic competitiveness,” said Pacala, who is director of the HMEI Carbon Mitigation Initiative (CMI).

“Princeton is amazingly well-connected to this PCAST,” Pacala said. “I feel honored to be named and am anxious to roll up my sleeves.”

The 30 appointees announced Wednesday include Andrea Goldsmith, dean of Princeton’s School of Engineering and Applied Science and the Arthur LeGrand Doty Professor of Electrical Engineering, along with 2001 alumnus John Dabiri, the Centennial Professor of Aeronautics and Mechanical Engineering at Caltech, and 1996 graduate Terence Tao, professor of mathematics and The James and Carol Collins Chair in the College of Letters and Sciences at UCLA.

The panel is led by geneticist and 1978 Princeton graduate Eric Lander, who is director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy and Science Advisor to the President, and co-chaired by Nobel Laureate Frances Arnold, the Linus Pauling Professor of Chemical Engineering, Bioengineering and Biochemistry at Caltech and a member of Princeton’s Class of 1979.

“The group I’m announcing today represents America and the world’s foremost experts in their fields,” Biden said in announcing the members. “From day one, I’ll be counting on their expertise as we continue to follow the science.”

Biden said that the latest council is the most diverse since PCAST’s inception in 1957. “Because of their extraordinary intellect, their wide range of experiences and unprecedented diversity, this PCAST will see new possibilities,” he said. “To change the course of human health and disease, to tackle the climate crisis with American innovation, to lead the world in technologies and industries of the future, and to protect our security. To ensure that science and technology include all Americans and improve the lives of all Americans.”

Pacala, who was director of HMEI (formally the Princeton Environmental Institute) from 2006 to 2014, focuses his research on developing and testing mathematical models that capture the processes that govern ecological communities and the interactions between the global biosphere and climate, including all aspects of the global carbon cycle. Pacala co-founded CMI — Princeton’s longest-running industry partnership — in 2000 with Robert Socolow, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, emeritus. In 2004, Pacala and Socolow co-authored a highly influential paper in Science on Stabilization Wedges, which provided an intellectual framework for sequentially cutting carbon emissions using science, technologies and industries already within humanity’s grasp. The paper has since received more than 3,000 citations in other published papers.

Pacala has chaired three expert committees for the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine related to renewable energy, carbon emissions and mitigation, and the transition to a net-zero carbon economy. He led the committee that released the Feb. 2 National Academies report that provided a technical blueprint and policy manual for the first decade of a wholesale transformation of the American economy to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

That report extensively quoted the landmark Princeton study, “Net-Zero America: Potential Pathways, Infrastructure and Impacts,” which provided a highly detailed and achievable blueprint for achieving a carbon-neutral economy by 2050. Initiated by Pacala and carried out by faculty and researchers affiliated with HMEI and the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment, the Net-Zero America project had been a focus of CMI for nearly two years and is ongoing. The study has been held up as a comprehensive guide for realizing President Biden’s commitment to eliminating the nation’s net-greenhouse gas emissions in the next 30 years in order to prevent the worst effects of climate change.

In 2018, Pacala oversaw a National Academies report urging substantial research focused on developing and launching “negative emissions technologies” (NETs) that remove and sequester carbon dioxide directly from the air. In 2009, he chaired a committee for the National Academy of Sciences (part of the National Academies) related to the monitoring and verification of greenhouse gas emissions.

Pacala, who joined the Princeton faculty in 1992, has received numerous honors, including the 2019 Weldon Memorial Prize from Oxford University; the 2013 Presidential Award from the American Society of Naturalists; an appointment as a Lifetime Fellow of the Ecological Society of America; and the 2010 Robert H. MacArthur Award from the Ecological Society of America. He has been elected as a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.