Katherine Calvin, who conducted climate change research before joining NASA, will serve as both the agency’s chief scientist and its senior climate adviser. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

ORLANDO, Fla. — NASA has hired a climate scientist as its new chief scientist, a move that reflects the greater emphasis the agency is placing on climate change studies.

NASA announced Jan. 10 that it selected Katherine Calvin as both its new chief scientist and its senior climate adviser. Calvin had been an earth scientist at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory’s Joint Global Change Research Institute, developing models for exploring interactions between human and Earth systems.

“Kate is exceptionally talented,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a call with reporters Jan. 11. “Her experience in the past makes her especially qualified for this position.”

“My research has spanned the range of climate science, climate impacts and mitigation,” Calvin said on the call. “My research has also involved a lot of multidisciplinary work, and I have a lot of experience working with people from different fields.”

NASA has had a chief scientist on an off-and-on basis for decades, responsible for being the administrator’s senior adviser on science programs and policy. Jim Green, a space scientist who had been the longtime director of planetary science at the agency before becoming chief scientist in 2018, retired Jan. 1.

The agency created the position of senior climate adviser less than a year ago to align itself with the Biden administration’s emphasis on climate change. Gavin Schmidt, a NASA climate scientist, served as acting climate adviser when the post was created. He will now return to his job as director of the agency’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York.

Combining the two positions, Nelson argued, was a means of emphasizing the importance of the climate adviser role. “We’ve chosen to elevate this senior climate adviser position,” he said.

NASA had struggled in the early months of the Biden administration to demonstrate its role in climate. When the White House established the National Climate Task Force in an executive order in the early days of the new administration to develop a whole-of-government approach to climate change, NASA was not among the more than 20 Cabinet departments and other agencies initially included. The White House added NASA two months later.

“When you think of NASA, folks don’t understand how involved in science we are, specifically climate change,” Nelson said, citing its role developing and operating satellites and instruments that collect weather and climate data. “NASA, really, is the point of the spear when it comes to climate change.”

Calvin said she would look for ways that other research at NASA outside of Earth science itself could be used to support climate change activities. “In general, my interest is in trying to connect the climate science research with the rest of the research at NASA,” she said. One example she gave is how life support technologies developed for the International Space Station could be used to solve issues like water scarcity on Earth.

She didn’t elaborate on other priorities she had as NASA’s chief scientist outside of climate change, saying only she was looking forward to new missions like the James Webb Space Telescope and the Double Asteroid Redirection Test, a spacecraft that will collide with the small moon of an asteroid this fall as a test of planetary defense techniques.

Many of NASA’s science priorities, including in Earth science, depend on the passage of a fiscal year 2022 appropriations bill for the agency. NASA requested an increase of $250 million, or 12.5%, for Earth science in its 2022 budget proposal, but Congress has yet to finalize a spending bill for NASA or other agencies. The federal government is operating under a continuing resolution that funds agencies at 2021 levels through Feb. 18.

“I’m very confident that the Congress is going to come to a bipartisan, bicameral agreement on fiscal year ’22 funding,” Nelson said. “It’s very important for us not to have a continuing resolution that would go back to fiscal year ’21, because to accomplish our goals in so many areas, not the least of which is the subject matter of today, climate science, we need that additional funding.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...