Mark Parsons

2009 Charles S. Falkenberg Award Winner

Mark A. Parsons received the AGU Charles S. Falkenberg Award, presented jointly by AGU and the Earth Science Information Partnership (ESIP), at the 2009 Summer Federation of Earth Science Information Partners Conference, held 7–10 July 2009 in Santa Barbara, Calif. The award honors “a scientist under 45 years of age who has contributed to the quality of life, economic opportunities, and stewardship of the planet through the use of Earth science information and to the public awareness of the importance of understanding our planet.”


I am honored to present to Mark A. Parsons the 2009 AGU Charles S. Falkenberg Award. Mark’s career to date has been dedicated to improving the quality of life and stewardship of the planet. He has done so with dedication and a strong desire to improve the flow of Earth science information and raising public awareness of the importance of the Earth’s polar regions and cryosphere. In 2005, he became program manager for the International Polar Year (IPY) Data and Information Service. The results have been a set of data management principles that the IPY community uses to archive and share their data and an infrastructure across the polar research countries, within the International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics (IUGG) Commission for Data and Information, and within the new International Association of Cryospheric Sciences.

Mark stands out as a champion and leader of scientific data management in an organization dedicated to the premise that data and information management is a fundamental building block of the scientific method. An example is his impact on the Cold Lands Processes Field Experiment (CLPX) data collection. This experiment had three intensive study areas in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. Mark convinced the CLPX scientific leadership that the best way to collect and verify in situ data was to embed “data wranglers” in the fi eld teams. Mark acted as one of the data wranglers in this effort. At the end of long days in the dead of winter, Mark greeted the field teams and other National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) staff with requests for debriefing (metadata are important!) and data transfer to digital media. This approach proved to be so successful that the CLPX data and analyses from the field sites were available within days of collection. Furthermore, NSIDC was able to immediately and safely archive these key environmental data. On the basis of the CLPX example, Mark and others have been able to convince U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) and NASA cryosphere research programs to use this approach, which is a fundamental change from the past way of doing business.

On a more personal note, before I knew Mark, I had heard of him through many international committees and activities, including National Research Council (NRC) panels, with high praise. Today I consider him a fine collaborator and friend with substantial integrity and professionalism. I especially appreciate that he even granted himself a degree as a certified data manager, something that sounds amusing but is very close to where our community needs to be heading.

Congratulations, Mark!

—PETER FOX, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, N. Y., on behalf of RONALD L. S. WEAVER, University of Colorado, Boulder


Receiving this award is a great and unexpected honor. I must admit it is nice to be recognized. I have been working hard for some years to spread the good word of data sharing and stewardship. But it is especially gratifying to have been nominated by so many diverse colleagues, all of whom I admire greatly and are well worthy of this award themselves. While the recognition is nice, I’m grateful also that this award marks a step toward the formal professionalization of scientific data management.

We have begun to create the professional practice; now we need to ensure broader recognition of its importance in science and society. The award recognizes contributions “to the quality of life, economic opportunities, and stewardship of the planet through the use of Earth science information.” We need to emphasize the ultimate purpose of why we steward information, and it goes beyond Earth science. It’s Earth system science. It is only through broad, interdisciplinary analysis of the multiple Earth systems that we will be able to address the grand challenges of our day.

So we need to convey the message that wise data stewardship is essential to growing human knowledge, but we must also continue to defi ne and implement the professional practice of stewardship. As I’ve said before, “It’s the data, stupid.” It is easy to get swept up in tools and technologies, the visualizations, the research, the analytics…but it’s all for naught if the data are not shared and preserved. When we take a data- centric view, we recognize that data sharing is a core problem, especially in the extremely multidisciplinary Earth- system context. Long-term data preservation and stewardship is another core issue, especially the development of sustainable business models. I argue that we should view data access and preservation functions as those provided by a basic utility. The system is simple, predictable, and usable for any user while also reliable, extensible, and durable. General costs are shared incrementally and equitably across all of science as a routine cost of doing business. Data are a public good and should be managed as such.

We should be doing everything we can to lower barriers to data sharing while still educating investigators about the need to be conscious and deliberate and to involve professionals when collecting, organizing, and disseminating data. We need to aggressively open up data to allow creative mashups and unanticipated uses. We need to engage young scientists and make data management a basic part of their education. We need to entrain new data professionals and show them an exciting and relevant career path. This is just the beginning. Thank you all.

—MARK A. PARSONS, University of Colorado, Boulder