Ned Ostenso

1996 Waldo E. Smith Medal (INACTIVE) Winner

The Waldo E. Smith Medal, which is awarded for extraordinary service to geophysics, was presented to Ned A. Ostenso at the 1996 AGU Fall Meeting Honors Ceremony on December 17, 1996, in San Francisco. The award citation and Ostenso’s response are given here.


“Ned A. Ostenso spent much of his early scientific career in the field: regional gravity studies in Alaska, a seismic traverse across Greenland at 80°N, wintering over in Antarctica at Byrd station, more over-the-snow seismic and gravity traverses across Antarctica, running a line of absolute gravity pendulum stations along the length of Africa work that resulted in more than 50 scientific papers including ones with Charles Bentley that established the mass of the Antarctic ice cap and the topographic discontinuity between East and West Antarctica. However, it is not for this work that he is being honored with the Waldo E. Smith Medal. To commemorate that earlier career, there is an Ostenso mountain peak somewhere in Antarctica and an Ostenso seamount in the Arctic Ocean.

“In 1966, Ned took what he thought was to be a 1-year sabbatical from the University of Wisconsin to work at the Office of Naval Research (ONR). Last spring, he retired after 30 years as one of the best and most respected of this nation’s federal science administrators.

“He was with ONR until 1977, where he progressed from project officer to `senior oceanographer.’ As the director of an oceanography program that was heavily supported by ONR, I remember Ned as a tough but fair program director. I also remember him for setting the tone for much of ONR’s style, including providing soft landings for university scientists (including their graduate students) it could no longer support. I expect ONR has the largest group of loyal alumni of any federal extramural research program. I believe that is in no small part a result of the civilized way ONR treats those it supports as well as those it can no longer support.

“During his 10 years in ONR, Ned had sabbaticals at both the White House and in Congress. While working with Congressman Mosher, he originated the work that became the National Climate Program and the National Earthquake Hazard Reduction legislation, two pieces of legislation that have contributed significantly to the furtherance of geophysics.

“In 1977, Ostenso was recruited by Robert White to join the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to run the Sea Grant Program which was starting its second decade. One of the unforeseen consequences of the way the Sea Grant Program was originally fashioned was that in time every coastal and Great Lake state expected to have one of its universities designated a Sea Grant college. After 10 years, the political pressure resulting from that assumption became almost unbearable. Ned arrived at a critical time, and he immediately set about devising ways to insure that the science in this state-federal partnership program was of high quality. That issue is no longer in question, and the Sea Grant Program is widely recognized as one of the better managed federally supported ocean science programs.

“Ned completed his federal career by serving 7 years as NOAA’s Assistant Administrator for Oceans and Atmospheric Research. Amongst his other responsibilities were NOAA’s 12 environmental research laboratories scattered nationwide from Princeton to Miami to Boulder to Seattle. I speak from first-hand experience when I say he did an absolutely first-class job in arranging for the care and feeding of these laboratories, and he had the support and respect of all of their directors, no small feat for a bureaucrat operating out of Washington.

“He helped negotiate the U.S./U.S.S.R. Bilateral Agreement in World Ocean Studies in 1972, and for nearly 20 years was the senior U.S. representative to that agreement. Most recently, he has played a key role in Vice President Gore’s Environmental Task Force and its reincarnation as the MEDEA Committee, whose task is to review highly classified environmental data for use by the civilian sector.

“Ostenso’s contributions to the American Geophysical Union are many, beginning with the Russian Translation Board and continuing through chairmanship of the Public Affairs Committee and service as a member of the Budget and Finance Committee. Most important and most recent was his chairmanship of the ad hoc real estate committee that oversaw the successful construction and financing of the wonderful new AGU headquarters.

—JOHN K. KNAUSS, Retired


“To be honored with the American Geophysical Union’s Waldo E. Smith Medal holds special meaning to me, since Waldo was one of my earliest mentors when I was an aspiring young geophysicist and new member of AGU. He and Martha became personal friends when Grace and I moved to Washington and located in their neighborhood. We enjoyed their good company and views of the world.

“Waldo emphasized the importance of membership involvement in the management of AGU affairs versus relying on a large staff infrastructure. He referred to AGU as being a volunteer organization and gave me an early opportunity to practice what he preached. Since then I have had numerous opportunities to serve AGU in a variety of ways. My rewards have been a great sense of personal satisfaction and enjoyable collegial associations; I never expected a medal.

“Since joining AGU in 1953, 1 have seen the scope of our research interests extend from the planets, and beyond, down to the workings of microorganisms. Our membership has expanded from a national to a global society. Important as this evolution has been, another even more significant change has occurred. That is the degree to which our research has an increasingly direct and immediate impact on society. We can no longer enjoy the sanctuary of an ivory tower, buffered by decades of development, before fundamental understandings influenced political processes and economic behavior. What attracts our interest is becoming the stuff of the press and even summit meetings. This will place increasing opportunities, if not demands, on AGU members to accept public service responsibilities, not only within our union but to society at large. I hope to continue to serve in this role. Thus, I accept this Waldo E. Smith Medal with gratitude, and with an ever greater sense of challenge.”

—NED A. OSTENSO, Retired