Burney Receives 2017 Global Environmental Change Early Career Award


Jennifer Burney is a master of effective interdisciplinary research. While formally trained in physics, she works on a wide range of issues that are pivotal to environmental health and human development.

Her best known work examines whether intensification of agriculture is good for the environment. While there has been fierce debate on all sides of this topic, Burney led a team that offered some of the first systematic analysis of the full cycle of activities (e.g., fertilizer production, farming, etc.) involved in producing food. Intensification is generally good for the environment, they found. They also figured out just how much intensification costs relative to other strategies aimed at lightening the environmental footprint of agriculture.

My favorite is Jen’s work on rural electrification. She has focused on the ways that renewable energy supplies—with local solar panels connected into miniature grids—might help low-income villages. Her contribution has been to run semirandom control trials in which different villages receive solar-powered drip irrigation and then to compute in detail the effects of these systems—on production of food, on incomes, and on public health.

In the past, researchers have focused on particular interventions—for example, an aid project to build a microgrid—but have not been able to pin down whether those interventions actually affected welfare, because donors and villages tended to select themselves for such projects.  Burney has cut through that bias with randomized trials, a standard method for the best research on development yet rare in studying energy interventions. Not only does she show that these solar grids have large local benefits, but also she has helped to demonstrate a viable technology that is now taking off on its own with private financing in parts of Africa. She is settling important scientific questions and helping humanity as well.

—David Victor, University of California, San Diego


Thank you, David, for your kind words. It’s a deeply touching honor to receive this award and to share it with three scientists whose work I admire very much. I’d like to thank AGU and the Global Environmental Change (GEC) focus group for all the work they do to support and encourage scientists throughout their careers. I first came to the AGU Fall Meeting during my inaugural quarter as a physics graduate student, and I can truthfully say that exposure to GEC sessions that week changed my life. I am perpetually inspired by all of the work showcased here and always come away from the meeting reenergized by both the cutting-edge science and the first-rate people doing it.

I am so grateful to the many people who have, at various times, taken a chance on me. My Ph.D. adviser, Blas Cabrera, took me on sight unseen when my intended adviser passed away; Blas was the kindest supporter imaginable of my intellectual exploration. Robert Freling, Jeff Lahl, and Walt Ratterman from the Solar Electric Light Fund risked a scientific collaboration to evaluate their work. Roz Naylor, Wally Falcon, and David Lobell at Stanford welcomed me to the new Earth System Science Department as a postdoc in an experiment that no one would have possibly foretold would go so well. Ram Ramanathan taught me countless hard and soft skills. Finally, David Victor and colleagues at the School of Global Policy and Strategy at UC San Diego made a totally unconventional choice to hire me. It still feels like I won the lottery because I have an incredible group of colleagues, postdocs, and students from whom I learn daily.

Finally, I’d like to thank my parents; my partner, Claire Adida; and our children, Gabi and Mina, for being the best possible companions on this journey.

—Jennifer Burney, University of California, San Diego