James L. Burch

2010 John Adam Fleming Medal Winner

Southwest Research Institute

James L. Burch was awarded the 2010 John Adam Fleming Medal at the AGU Fall Meeting Honors Ceremony, held on 15 December 2010 in San Francisco, Calif. The medal is for “original research and technical leadership in geomagnetism, atmospheric electricity, aeronomy, space physics, and related sciences.”


It is an honor and a pleasure to introduce the 2010 John Adam Fleming Medal recipient, James L. Burch. Jim’s extraordinary career as a scientist and leader in space physics embodies the medal’s recognition of original research and technical leadership.

His early, original research in the 1970s and 1980s on the mysteries of the high-altitude polar regions and Earth’s magnetosphere and ionosphere was crucial in advancing the field, and these studies are still cited as classic contributions to space physics. This and later fundamental research resulted in his election as AGU Fellow in 1995.

If anything, Jim’s scientific career accelerated and diversified after this milestone. By 1995, Jim was planning the Imager for Magnetopause-to-Aurora Global Exploration (IMAGE) mission. This mission used innovative imaging techniques to observe the global structure and dynamics of plasmas in Earth’s inner magnetosphere. As principal investigator (PI), Jim demonstrated both technical and scientific leadership, publishing numerous, definitive papers using data from the mission. IMAGE changed profoundly the community’s understanding of the inner magnetosphere and its dynamic response to solar wind forcing.

The second quality of Fleming Medal recipients is technical leadership. Jim’s development of Southwest Research Institute’s Space Science and Engineering Division into a world-class organization is extraordinary evidence of his technical leadership. In addition, Jim has been a PI on several successful missions and is currently instrument suite PI for the Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mission. The MMS team includes more than 60 coinvestigators and collaborators from more than 30 institutions. Through Jim’s leadership, this flagship NASA mission will revolutionize the study of magnetic reconnection as a fundamental plasma physics process.

Jim has held several important leadership positions on NASA, European Space Agency, National Academy of Sciences, and National Research Council committees. In particular, he chaired several committees that have defined the course of space physics and aeronomy for more than 2 decades. These include the Space Physics Strategy Implementation Study for NASA in 1989 and, later, the first-ever Sun-Earth Connection (now Heliophysics division) Roadmap Committee in 1996. Mission prioritization for the Heliophysics division’s Solar Terrestrial Probes that came from this committee still remains in effect.

At the National Research Council, Jim was chair of the Committee on Solar and Space Physics (CSSP). During his tenure, Jim led more studies than any other CSSP chair, including initiation of the first-ever Space Physics Decadal Survey. Both the NASA Roadmap and Decadal Survey leadership came at crucial times, when the field needed well-defined direction.

Finally, Jim has been a strong supporter of AGU and has served in several leadership roles, including editor and editor in chief of Geophysical Research Letters (1989–1993), president of the Space Physics and Aeronomy section (1996–1998), chair of the Committee on Public Affairs (2000–2002), and chair of the Meetings Committee (2004–2007).

It is rare to find a scientist like Jim and one who has enjoyed such a successful career. It is equally rare to find a leader with Jim’s technical capabilities, which allow him to participate in complex scientific programs at all levels. The Fleming Medal is a fitting tribute to his career.

—STEPHEN A. FUSELIER, Lockheed Martin Advanced Technology Center, Palo Alto, Calif.


I first want to thank my good friend and colleague Stephen Fuselier for his very kind citation. While I was shocked to learn of my selection for this medal, it is a great honor to accept it here tonight. Over the past 45 years I have been engaged with AGU in one capacity or another on issues often transcending any scientific boundaries. This involvement led to wonderful friendships with AGU staff members and scientists across various geophysics disciplines. But to receive this great honor was completely unexpected, and I will be forever grateful to AGU and my colleagues who supported my nomination.

Many people deserve my profound thanks, but I can only name a few and describe briefly how I have benefited from my association with them: Brian O’Brien, my thesis advisor at Rice, who introduced me to the joy and rigor of experimental space physics; Eugene Parker, who always makes the correct predictions while reminding me that O’Brien was right when he said, “Jim, you’re just not cut out to be a theorist”; Bob Hoffman, who somehow found me in the Army and gave me my first job in science at Goddard Space Flight Center after 3 years away with no clear path back into the field; Lou Lanzerotti, who showed me that the statesmanlike approach is best for advancing the future of our science; Jerry Goldstein, who demonstrates that the fresh outlook and enthusiasm of younger scientists lead to exciting new breakthroughs even in a fully mature field like space physics; Dave Young, whose work confirms that innovative instrument development is what fuels the scientific engine of space physics; Chris Russell, who relentlessly shows that rapid progress is made when investigations are carefully tailored to available data sets, which in space physics are always incomplete; and Dan Baker, who recognizes that because of the vastness of space, supplementing reductionism with a systems approach to science can lead to results that are both fundamental and far reaching.

Doing research in space requires large resources, and I am grateful to Southwest Research Institute for providing the support necessary for our group to succeed. I commend NASA for maintaining its outstanding long-term program of peer-reviewed science, and I especially want to thank the two most recent directors of NASA heliophysics, George Withbroe and Dick Fisher, for the confidence they have shown in me.

As we all know, a career in science involves hard, interesting, and fun work done with well-educated and like-minded colleagues having high integrity. However, as exciting as work in this field often is, it does not take my breath away. That only happens, and has for the same 45 years, every time I see my wife, Kathy. Finally, the youngest of our three wonderful children, Kenny, is here tonight with his wife, Amy. By his example, Kenny has taught me what is really important in life.

Thank you, everyone, very much for sharing this wonderful evening with me.

—JAMES L. BURCH, Southwest Research Institute, San Antonio, Tex.