Ghassem Asrar

2014 Ambassador Award Winner

Ghassem R. Asrar was awarded the 2014 Ambassador Awards at the AGU Fall Meeting Honors Ceremony, held on 17 December 2014 in San Francisco, Calif. The award is in recognition of “outstanding contributions to the following area(s): societal impact, service to the Earth and space community, scientific leadership, and promotion of talent/career pool.”


For more than 20 years, Ghassem Asrar has been a distinguished public servant to the Earth and space community of the highest degree. As chief scientist for the Earth Observing System (EOS) at NASA from 1992 to 1998, Ghassem developed a communication and outreach strategy promoting the EOS program to the public, the U.S. Congress, and international scientific organizations that still exists today. From 1998 to 2004, he served as associate administrator for NASA’s Office of Earth Science. In this capacity he had overall scientific, technical, programmatic, and organization management responsibility for Earth science, with an annual budget greater than $1.5 billion. During this period, the program developed and successfully launched 15 Earth observing satellites and developed a comprehensive, multidisciplinary data and information system (-EOSDIS) that enabled the use of data from these satellites by more than two million users. Ghassem’s last tour of government service was as deputy administrator for the Agricultural Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture from 2006 to 2008, where he was responsible for management and oversight of a $250 million portfolio of environment and natural resources research projects located at numerous laboratories throughout the United States.

One of the hallmarks of Ghassem Asrar’s scientific leadership has been his commitment to interdisciplinary and international science. During his time as director of the World Climate Research Programme (WCRP), the number of nations participating in the program and their financial and in-kind contributions for WCRP activities increased. For example, for the first time in the -30-year history of the WCRP, an Open Science Conference was held in October 2011 in Denver, Colo., and attracted 2000 scientists from around the world, including 530 early career-scientists, more than 300 of whom were from developing nations and regions. Another attribute of Ghassem’s impact on many fields has been his devotion to the next generation of Earth scientists. While at NASA, he established the NASA Earth System Science Graduate Student Fellowship program to attract students with strong math, physics, and basic sciences backgrounds to focus their Ph.D. research and training on the emerging interdisciplinary field of Earth system science. NASA has awarded a total of 150 fellowships each year, the legacy of which has been the successful graduation of several thousands of Ph.D. and postdoctoral students who are now serving as the advisors and mentors of future generations of applicants and recipients.

In summary, Ghassem Asrar’s leadership and service to the present and future generations of Earth scientists truly embody the spirit of the AGU Ambassador Award.

—Antonio J. Busalacchi, University of Maryland, College Park


I am honored to be among the first recipients of the newly established AGU Ambassador Award.

I consider myself very fortunate to have had great opportunities to contribute to the field of Earth system science as a researcher, educator, science manager, and senior administrator. These opportunities allowed me to contribute in a variety of ways during the past 30 years. Reflecting on those years, I can confess that none of it had been planned the way they came along, not on my part! Even my first postdoctoral appointment in 1985 came about through a surprise invitation letter when I was completing and defending my Ph.D. dissertation. It was this opportunity that shaped my professional career during ensuing decade(s). One major common contributor was NASA, which sponsored my postdoctoral appointment, hosted me as a visiting senior scientist through the California Institute of Technology/Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and ultimately accepted me as one of its own. Combined together, these posts shaped more than 2 decades of my career. As such, I will always have a soft spot for NASA and its mission in my heart.

I can think of many fond memories and proud moments, such as being a part of the international science teams promoting interdisciplinary and coordinated field experiments in the 1980s and 1990s, a member of the international team formulating the international Earth observing system program with NASA’s Earth Observing System as a major component, and a member of the U.S. national science teams for developing the U.S. Space Exploration and Energy Independence initiatives. The one role that I cherish most is my contribution to the NASA education programs such as the Earth system science fellowship, New Investigators program, and National Earth System Science curriculum and education standards. They have enabled training and development of current and future generations of Earth system scientists, globally. Without intellectual leaders sponsored by these programs, we could neither utilize effectively the current Earth observing system nor dream of the future generation of such systems.

I thank AGU for bestowing on me the Ambassador Award for my modest contribution to the field of Earth system science. I share this recognition and my gratitude with those who helped shape my career. I could succeed because of their support for me, and it is my great pleasure to accept this prestigious award. Thank you.

—Ghassem R. Asrar, Joint Global Change Research Institute, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, College Park, Md.