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To Improve Climate and Food Futures, We Need More Rewards for Connection Makers

cynthia rosenzweig and colleagues
Image: World Food Prize Foundation

I was thrilled when Cynthia Rosenzweig, a longtime NASA and Columbia researcher working at the interface of climate change and food, was named this year’s World Food Prize Laureate. The prize, awarded annually since 1987, honors individuals who have advanced human development by improving the quality, quantity or availability of food.

The Nobel Prize and other scientific honors at this level tend to reward discovery — a specific line of research leading to a breakthrough moment — CRISPR, the bacterial cause of ulcers, usable LED light.

The Food Prize for Rosenzweig, who is a senior research scientist and head of the Climate Impacts Group at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, is rewarding her work as a system builder. Through four decades, she conceived and nurtured a network steadily refining models of how the human-jolted climate system and food systems interrelate, and improving the utility of resulting insights where risks and opportunities are greatest.

Combining deep fluency in mathematics, climate and crop science and a lifelong passion for agriculture, she’s been a lead author on a host of influential papers illuminating, through modeling, how climate change could shape food supplies.

But those achievements aren’t the core of what garnered Rosenzweig this plaudit. Her super skill was, and remains, a zeal for seeking and propelling connectivity and cross-disciplinary fluency in pursuit of improved climate and crop projections. When you have time, watch how she lays this out methodically, beat by beat, in a wonderful 2016 “Maniac Lecture” for other NASA staff:

Humanity needs much more of this skill given the urgent need to accelerate progress where climatic stresses on food, water, ecosystems and communities are intensifying.

I’m hoping the example of this award can spur a wider move, particularly in academia and among public and private funders, to honor and support those who put connection making and system building ahead of quick-turnaround research results.

Too often, rigid norms and institutions impede, rather than nurture, the next generation of Cynthia Rosenzweigs.

Don’t take my word for it. Read this Nature Sustainability commentary by eight early-career post-doctoral researchers (“Supporting interdisciplinary careers for sustainability”) laying out academic norms that drive young researchers toward quick publication and limit time for engaging communities at risk or other fields.

Read the rest of the post and watch an interview with Cynthia Rosenzweig on the Sustain What blog.

Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.

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