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Q&A With Lisa Goddard on Leadership in Climate Science

This story is part of a series celebrating the work of women at the Earth Institute, in honor of International Women’s Day on March 8, 2021. Read more about the day and our related blog posts here.

lisa goddard speaking into a microphone
Lisa Goddard takes the mic during a workshop. Credit: Elisabeth Gawthrop/IRI

Lisa Goddard’s career at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI) stretches back to when the institute was based on the West Coast and some of its scientists surfed on their lunch breaks (we won’t name names…).

Goddard is internationally recognized for her work in climate science, and has held several leadership positions in the field, including a seat on the Board on Atmospheric Sciences and Climate at the U.S. National Academies of Science, and a chair position at the World Climate Research Programme’s Climate and Ocean: Variability, Predictability and Change organization. She has pioneered key research on El Niño and La Niña and is also an adjunct associate professor in Columbia’s Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences.

For International Women’s Day, we reached out to her to hear more about her experiences and her thoughts on the world of climate science.

You’re the Climate Lead for the Adapting Agriculture to Climate Today, for Tomorrow (ACToday) project. At its start in 2017, ACToday represented an excellent opportunity to apply the knowledge IRI has gained since its founding. What do you think we’ve learned from ACToday and how do you think that could shape IRI going forward?

Adapting Agriculture to Climate Today, for Tomorrow (ACToday) aims to combat hunger and improve food security by increasing climate knowledge in six countries that are particularly dependent on agriculture and vulnerable to the effects of climate change and fluctuations—Ethiopia, Senegal, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Colombia, and Guatemala.

That is a huge question. IRI and our Columbia colleagues who have worked on ACToday have accomplished so much in the six countries where the project is being implemented. A major premise of ACToday is that the types of hazards we worry most about with respect to climate change projections—such as droughts, heat waves, inundation events—are happening right now, and we can predict them with weeks to months of lead time, rather than merely projecting how their statistics may change in 50-100 years. This is of tremendous value to vulnerable populations. The problem is that most of the national meteorological services around the world deal with weather forecasting, while a different government agency, such as the ministry of the environment, might deal with climate change. And few government agencies in the developing world are able to provide forecasts for the next couple weeks to months in the future — what is referred to as subseasonal-to-seasonal forecasts (S2S). These are critical for decision making about food security, water management, energy production and more.

As a result, a big emphasis of ACToday has been to train our national partners on S2S prediction and to transfer the technology and approach to produce that information in a skillful and meaningful way. From them, we have learned what kinds of forecasts matter most. It might not be rainfall totals, for example, but rather the frequency of wet days, or days above certain temperature thresholds.

In order for a meteorological service to understand what it needs to provide, it must connect with the stakeholders it serves. We have learned a great deal by helping bring the information provider and user communities together. In particular, building capacity and/or collaborating with just meteorologists is not enough. The meteorologists need to be able to talk effectively to agriculture extension workers and communicate near-term climate threats clearly to the government. And those people will need to understand what types of information are available, what climate-related risks their sectors face, and what can be done about it. That’s the only way the right information can be produced, translated into relevant terms, transferred to those that can act on it, and then used. All of this work has built on the strong foundation of trust and credibility that has been developed by IRI over decades.

lisa goddard presentation
Lisa Goddard, director of the IRI, gives a presentation at the CCAFS/IRI 10 Year Event in NYC. Credit: Jacquelyn Turner (IRI/CCAFS)

From the start of ACToday, we knew that some structured capacity building would be needed to sustain the interventions from the project. As a result, one of the most exciting innovations has been the development of what we’re calling the Climate Services Academies. These are being realized slightly differently in each of the six countries, but our country partners are active collaborators in setting them up while we guide the design based on the ACToday science, application, and practice. International agencies such as the World Food Programme, the CGIAR, and the World Bank have expressed a desire for their staff to engage in similar types of continuing education. So we have proposed to keep the content alive and evolving, with a home at Columbia University. Our hope is that these types of educational offerings will contribute to the success of the Climate School at Columbia University.

The unique opportunity afforded by the Columbia World Projects was to bring the breadth of our work to bear in specific regions at the same time. With this coherent foundation established in six countries under ACToday, we can build out our successes into other sectors in those countries and to other countries in those regions. We can also make a case to development and humanitarian agencies of the value of addressing a problem wholly, rather than through one specific intervention at a time.

You’ve recently taken over the role of overseeing IRI’s important monthly climate and ENSO briefings from Tony Barnston, who retired last year. What has it been like to step into this role? How do you expect these briefings to evolve in coming years?

I have really enjoyed taking over this responsibility from Tony. His were big shoes to fill. Tony was well known for his open and approachable style. Occasionally, we would all tense up at his sometimes extreme honesty to questions about forecasts that were wildly off or other things that went wrong — issues that most academics like to smooth over. I learned so much from him, because his transparency was key to the trust that he engendered. I have tried to abide by that willingness to admit when things go wrong, or when I simply don’t know the answer. I have also tried to add my own style to our live briefings and to the ENSO updates that I coordinate with other scientists in the US and worldwide. For example, I like to talk about the dynamics of a climate phenomenon in the current context, and provide explanations for the complex graphics we use to understand what is happening. Since my Ph.D. research was about El Niño and La Niña, it has been a joy to reconnect with my colleagues on a regular basis, and scratch our heads over a challenging prediction.

A 2015 study found that women make up only 17% of tenure-track and tenured faculty in the field of atmospheric science. As a woman leader in an international climate organization, how have you seen trends and demographics shift during your career? How do you hope they continue to shift?

As a woman in the physical sciences, I have definitely seen the field shift. As an undergraduate studying physics, I had a few classes in which I was the only woman in the room. Unfortunately, I had a couple of professors who expressed attitudes that would not be acceptable today. In graduate school, I was the only woman in my year’s cohort. There was an advantage to being a rarity: I found that if I asserted myself, and reached out to my professors and other scientists, I was more memorable than my average male colleagues because I was different. So, I really embraced that difference. Early on, I found a similar advantage as a young scientist at meetings, and even later, when I first took over the IRI director role. The number of amazing women in the field has really increased, especially over the last decade. This has its own wonderful benefits. While I may just be ‘another woman’ in the field now, I see more of a female sensitivity and approach to problem solving that the sciences really needed. By this I am not referring to any count of gender, but rather a more cooperative and solution-seeking mindset than I used to see in the early part of my career, and which is so needed for the complex and multi-disciplinary problems that academia increasingly takes on. I believe the momentum is there, as is the evidence of value, for this trend to continue.

I cannot emphasize enough the value of acting confidently, even if you do not feel that way. There are so many opportunities waiting for us to just step up. That applies to a lot more than just your profession, by the way. To give a little example of that, I had the great privilege to be part of a meeting around the Columbia World Projects that President Bollinger had convened when Hillary Clinton visited Columbia a few years ago. It was maybe a dozen of us sitting around a table, including a few Columbia professors. I said to the others that I would ask if she would take a picture with me at the end. The others were excited by this, and said they would do the same, but when the time came, I was the only one who asked! I got that picture, and had a little personal chat with her. All that took was deciding to do something I wanted to do, and doing it. Women need to, and thankfully are, doing more of that, and the benefits to themselves and to us all are palpable.

lisa goddard with hillary clinton
Lisa Goddard with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Photo courtesy of Lisa Goddard.

It’s important to note, however, that even after 20+ years at Columbia, serving on national and international advisories, helping develop the MA Program in Climate and Society and then teaching in it (as an adjunct), raising millions of dollars in research grants, co-leading the first and largest Columbia World Project, and directing one of the larger centers under the Earth Institute, I have not been granted Faculty status at the University. I stay at Columbia because of the excellence of my colleagues at the IRI and across the Earth Institute and because of the fantastic students I have had the privilege to advise and to teach. I value all that, and would not give it up. I mention this to highlight the challenges that officers of research face at Columbia. It is challenging for anyone to endure on 100% soft money, and especially women, who often also have primary responsibilities for children at home. I believe this is one reason why we have lost several talented women scientists to faculty positions at other universities over the years.

As a professor in Columbia’s Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, you’ve had a hand in shaping the careers of many Columbia students, including many who now work at IRI. You’ve also dedicated a lot of time to develop and run the Post-docs Applying Climate Expertise Program. What is the importance of mentorship in the atmospheric sciences and what are the particular challenges facing students and young researchers in this field?

Mentorship brings more rewards than any other area of my work. I enjoy it more and more as time goes by, probably because I have slowly learned that it involves more than just the subject matter of the class or of a student’s research project. I have learned this from my Columbia colleagues as well as from the students themselves. By trying to set a positive example, I have had to examine my own values and priorities that I bring to the workplace. What I enjoy most about mentoring, or the times that I most value, are when these young scientists start to stand behind their own ideas and style. It is completely amazing to watch their light emerge and then shine brightly. This is related to the issue of confidence that I mentioned earlier. To imagine that I have been able to contribute to that in even the slightest way is a true miracle.

Originally published by Columbia University’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society

Science for the Planet: In these short video explainers, discover how scientists and scholars across the Columbia Climate School are working to understand the effects of climate change and help solve the crisis.
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