Geochemist Alex Halliday was appointed the new director of Columbia’s Earth Institute by University President Lee C. Bollinger last December. He builds on a distinguished career as an earth science researcher and the leader of a variety of research institutions around the world, including Oxford University and the Royal Society in London, the world’s first scientific organization, founded in 1660.
Every new head of the Earth Institute brings a different emphasis to the task of understanding and preserving the planet. Having a physical scientist at its helm will be a change of direction for the world-renowned institution and Halliday, who started the job in May, arrived at a time when the University’s wide-ranging expertise on climate change and sustainability is more important than ever. Here he discusses his vision for the Earth Institute’s future.
What drew you to the Earth Institute?
When Wally Broecker [the Newberry Professor of Geology, who is considered by many to be one of the founders of climate science] first mentioned to me the idea of coming here as the director, I had to first ascertain whether there would be any interest in my desire to take the institute in new directions. In the end, there were so many ways in which the Earth Institute vastly expands upon my own interests that I couldn’t help but be truly inspired by and engaged with it. When I gave my farewell speeches in London and Oxford, it was quite easy to talk about the stunning work that’s come out of the Earth Institute, and the scientists who have taken their research and turned it into practical action on the ground to help people in very challenging situations around the world. That’s a brilliant thing that Columbia does through the Earth Institute and its various components.
Did you have any dealings with the Institute before you came here?
I was a professor at ETH Zürich when I first visited the Earth Institute about 15 years ago. During my two-day stay, I was blown away by the breadth of what it was achieving, both in the local region as well as in addressing global issues. I met researchers focusing on environmental engineering and major issues in public health. I’ll never forget flying back from New York to Zürich and reporting back to the president about what we might want to do in the future.
How did you become interested in geoscience?
I’m from Cornwall in the U.K., an area that has many archeological remains of life from the Neolithic to Iron Age and from the Industrial Revolution. It was particularly important in terms of mining for tin and copper in the 18th and 19th centuries. Those mines, the scenery, and the exposed geology got me fascinated in the subject of earth sciences, mineral deposits, and how the planet works.
Your research has taken you around the world and across disciplines. Can you tell us a little about that?
As a postdoc in Scotland I collaborated with scientists working in the western U.S. studying Yellowstone, the Long Valley caldera near Yosemite, and Mount St. Helens. I moved to the University of Michigan in 1986, where I started a new lab, further studying volcanoes, but also the deep Earth, as well as more near-surface problems such as the source of central Pacific dust and what its history revealed about continental erosion and climate.
About five years later, I heard about a new kind of mass spectrometer that was being developed in the U.K. The company was interested in marketing these instruments to make the job of an isotope geochemist like myself much easier. I realized it could instead open up much of the periodic table so that we could study isotope variations in many elements that had never been studied before in the trace amounts you have in natural samples.
My research team was the first to acquire such an instrument — today there are hundreds worldwide — and immediately set to work studying problems like the age of the moon, and how Mars and the Earth formed. I became more of a planetary scientist, or what we call a cosmochemist. But we also developed new methods for studying ocean records, so I found myself working on the Earth’s earliest, and most recent histories, in parallel.
I was absolutely blown away by the breadth of the Earth Institute and what it was achieving, both in the local region as well as in addressing global issues.
What did you learn from your past experiences leading large research organizations?
After three years at Oxford, where I moved after ETH Zürich, I saw a number of problems that needed addressing and became the head (or dean) of the science and engineering division, which was about a quarter of the University. I expanded our fundraising, particularly to replace the aging buildings for mathematics, statistics, Earth sciences, physics, and chemistry. We also hired many outstanding faculty members, focused on expanding engineering, mathematics, and the environmental sciences, raised awareness of diversity issues, more than doubled the division’s external grant income and turnover, and grew the number of Ph.D. students by over 50 percent.
Then I was asked to consider a role as vice president of the Royal Society. As “Physical Secretary” I handled aspects of science policy for energy and climate and helped with discussions of how the U.K. distributes research funds. We worked on science education, particularly mathematics and computing, as well as gender and other aspects of diversity in the sciences. Then there was the vote on Brexit, so I and many others advocated for the need to work collaboratively across Europe to maintain strong science in the U.K.
What are some of your plans for Columbia’s Earth Institute now that you’re here?
It’s easy to walk into any organization with your own ideas about what you’ll do differently, but there’s also a lot that you have to learn. I have been spending the first months talking to individuals and groups, and of course, listening.
I am particularly impressed by the level of public engagement and the practice work that the Earth Institute does locally as well as globally. As I’m learning, it strikes me that there are a number of things we might want to think about doing differently. One is that the Earth Institute has been heavily based upon the work of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. This very big jewel in Columbia’s crown has diverse strengths, from extreme climatic events to the deep earth, from ocean chemistry to seismology, and from volcanoes to marine biology. It is rightly viewed as the top ranked department in the U.S. and a phenomenal asset for Columbia and the Earth Institute. However, both the subject matter of sustainability, and the Earth Institute itself, are broader than that, and it’s critical that we focus on developing those other aspects in order to achieve greater focus on additional important areas.
Many solutions for today’s problems lie in novel technologies for energy, energy storage, optimizing the grid, energy efficiency, transportation, manufacturing, and negative emissions (or CO2 removal). For this reason, the Earth Institute needs to work more closely with the School of Engineering and see if it can help provide opportunities for expansion of programs of mutual interest.
Decarbonization is not just about new technology. It requires a “systems” approach. For example, our carbon footprint can also be improved with changes to agriculture, forestry, and soil utilization. As such, it interfaces with Columbia’s growing interests in food security and climate adaptation. However, implementing many of these changes is then also going to require new economic models, lifestyle choices, and decisions about how to create the right incentives. It’s one thing to propose carbon reduction targets, or develop new ways of generating, storing, and transmitting energy. It is something else to implement those actions politically while simultaneously trying to improve the world’s living standards. Therefore, we also need researchers working in decision making, law, economics, ethics, and inequality — many of the key disciplines needed for sustainable development.
How is the Earth Institute uniquely positioned to address sustainability?
Any university could work toward decarbonization by hiring new individuals in relevant fields. What the Earth Institute can do better than any other organization is to jointly discuss and model how best to decarbonize or adapt in different parts of the world, or even just parts of the U.S. — the interdisciplinary solutions will be regional or even local in nature. We can convene global and regional discussions involving researchers and students, and talk with governments and businesses. This engagement for the public good is something Columbia excels at, from its leadership at the very top, to the commitment and enthusiasm on the ground, particularly among young people, for tackling problems of great societal relevance.
The challenges of sustainability require an interdisciplinary response, and I’d like to ramp up our activity in the social sciences, global health, and ethics to work with our physical scientists on sustainability issues. We need individuals and groups of individuals who can cut across disciplines and forge powerful solutions to complex problems by working in teams.
For example, the International Research Institute for Climate and Society is connecting the modeling and forecasting of climatic variability to problems of food security in developing countries. To my mind it is very appropriate that this has been chosen as the first of the Columbia World Projects that President Bollinger has established.
Interdisciplinarity can lead to major discoveries; the structure of DNA was not figured out by scientists sitting in biology departments. Interdisciplinarity facilitates the tackling of complex multifaceted systems, problems of the kind needed in climate mitigation and adaptation, and other aspects of sustainable development. Interdisciplinary education is also especially important for equipping young minds to tackle today’s issues.
To be really strong in interdisciplinarity one also needs strong underlying academic disciplines, which makes Columbia ideal. And remember, it is also “Columbia University in the City of New York,” not just with the world’s top geoscience department, but also at the heart of global business with the United Nations on our doorstep, and with a heightened local awareness of being vulnerable to the extremes of weather and the changing climate. Where better to do this?
Are you planning any new projects that cross the University’s various academic units?
I am enjoying meeting Columbia’s deans and department heads to discuss new areas of engagement with the Earth Institute. For example, there are opportunities in data science that will no doubt benefit from the Data Science Institute. Machine learning and robotics will introduce fantastic opportunities for more sustainable living. There are opportunities to engage the arts and humanities on the ethics of responsibility toward the planet, and the artistic expression of our most human thoughts, feelings, and sensitivities as we consider the world, its biosphere and its people. There may be ways to engage with the Zuckerman Mind, Brain, Behavior Institute on the challenges of decision making and adaptation. There may even be fascinating opportunities working with astronomers on the modeling of exosolar planetary climates. We also need to go beyond the negative messages, beyond that oft felt sense of despair about climate change, to some great ideas about how we can see opportunity. I am engaging with the Business School, and local businesses, to explore new opportunities for entrepreneurs in sustainability. Of course, major businesses are having to think about sustainability anyway, and that only needs to grow.
The Earth Institute’s work is of the utmost importance. We need to increase our efforts to tackle the difficult problems of climate change and other aspects of sustainability, and we are running out of time to save resources, coastlines, businesses, biodiversity, infrastructure, and of course human lives and very vulnerable societies. Our responsibility to current and future generations is real. Columbia should grasp the opportunity afforded by its academic strength, its location, and its Earth institute, to make a difference.
Read more about Alex Halliday here.